All art in this post by Artem Demura.
We've all heard the problems with big, solo boss monsters in D&D. They can easily become boring, grindy, and non-threatening. The poor things end up getting killed before they get a chance to do anything cool. The PC's have access to a huge array of bullshit that can easy grapple, restrain, stun, or put your hapless boss to sleep. The action economy is fundamentally against a solo boss, which it makes it really hard to make a fun, challenging solo boss in the "Combat as Sport" style of play.
Here is a random, simple idea for helping with these issues: Scrap the action economy. Just throw it in the trash. Instead, do this.
After each player's turn, the boss takes a turn.
Each time the boss takes a turn, it can move and take 1 action. Actions can just be typical examples like this.
- Claw. +14 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 15 (2d6 + 8) slashing damage.
So after a player takes their turn, the boss can make a claw attack. But actions can also be linked together in action chains, like this.
- Careful shot. The Archer aims at a target and slowly draws back his bow.
- The Archer fires. +12 to hit, 2d10 damage.
After Player A's turn, the boss does the first action (drawing the bow). Then after player B's turn, it completes the action chain by doing the second action (firing an arrow).
Here's another example of an action chain.
- Blood Moon. The Wolf rears back and howls. The sound makes your head pulse with wild pain.
- The moon turns blood red. The area 10 feet around the wolf begins to squirm with black liquid.
- Burning blood rains from the sky. Everyone within 10 feet of the wolf takes 3d10 damage.
- Grapple. The plant grabs the nearest player. Make a DC 20 strength save - if they fail, they are grappled and take d6 damage.
- The plant pulls the target into its maw. They are trapped inside and take d8 damage a round until they can free themselves with a successful DC 15 Strength check.
By doing this, you can foreshadow attacks like in a videogame. It gives the PC's a short moment to see what's about to happen and get out of danger. If the monster misses the first attack in the chain, the rest of the chain doesn't go off.
In the normal action economy, foreshadowing like this is tough to do. If your enemy spends a turn powering up for a big attack, it's just wasted an entire round! It probably won't even survive to unleash that attack. With this system, it's very easy and simple to foreshadow what the enemy is about to do, because each action is split up so much more.
This is great because it lets the PC's experience those heroic moments. "Jane, you can see the dragon is bearing down on the wizard, about to swallow him whole - what do you want to do?" Jane has a turn to try to save the wizard from danger before he's devoured.
You could simply follow the normal initiative order with this system, or even let the players decide what order they want to go in.
Instead of taking an action, the boss can take a reaction like this.
After someone shoots a projectile at the Archer: He snatches it out of the air, cancelling the damage, and quickly fires it back with his bow. +5 to hit, d6 damage.
This symbol means it's a reaction. The GM can choose to trigger it when a specific condition is met. If the boss makes a reaction, they've used up their action for that turn.
You can also use action chains to easily create classic video-gamey scenarios where the enemy is vulnerable after their attack. Here's some examples:
- Giant Swing. The warrior moves and swings the gigantic axe at the closest PC. +10 to hit, 2d8 damage. The axe is buried in the wall or floor.
- The Warrior struggles, then pulls their axe free with a crunch and holds it high above their head in triumph.
- Charge. The Boar aims at a spot with the most PC's clustered together in a group. It prepares to charge.
- The Boar charges in a straight line until it hits a wall or solid object, dealing 2d12 damage to everyone hit. Whatever object or wall it hit will be destroyed.
- The Boar staggers around, dazed. All attacks have advantage against it.
- The Boar shakes itself and regains its composure.
- Death ray. The machine opens up its chest and fires a death ray from its heart. 3d8 damage in a 60ft cone, 19 Dex save for half damage.
- The machine overheats! Its beating heart is exposed! Any attack that targets the heart double damage this turn.
- The machine closes up the iron protecting the heart and stops being vulnerable
Again, in a normal action economy you'd be making the boss vulnerable for an entire round - way too much. With this system you can open it up for only 1 or 2 turns, so only a couple of players get the chance to seize the opportunity and try to make their attacks count.
✸ <- An action with this symbol is a desperate action. It can only be performed when the boss is at half health or lower. For example:
- ✸ Desperate Flame. The dragon lets out a shriek of terrible rage. Ash and smoke billows around it.
- A cloud of ash surges from the dragon. The area within 80 feet is covered in smoke, making it difficult to see. The dragon inhales. The heat intensifies.
- All terrain within 80 feet is ignited like tinder. Each creature on the ground must take d6 fire damage on each of their turns for the next minute.
This is a simple way to do "Phases". Desperate actions should be something that seriously change up the battlefield and the situation.
You can use this same technique to run a huge horde of enemies. Let's say you have a wave of countless undead converging on the PC's as they try to hold out. Don't run individual turns for every enemy - that would take forever. Just give them a group health pool, and have them take an action after each PC action. For example:
- A zombie latches onto you and tries to bite you. +5, d8 damage, save or become infected.
- Rotting hands grasp at you from all angles. DC 18 STR save or be grappled.
- The hoard drags you away from the rest of the party and into the mass of undead. 2d8 damage each round until you make a DC 18 STR save or another party member saves you.
When describing attacks, you can narrate the party cleaving through 3 zombies in a single blow. But mechanically you just keep track of the group health pool for the horde, and continue to take an action after each PC. When the health runs out, the horde falls apart or their morale breaks. The remaining survivors flee or are easily dispatched. This is an easy way to running any combat against a large group (an enemy army, goblins, orcs, etc).
Converting 5e bosses to this system.
Movement: Divide the movement rate by 4 (roughly - round up if needed). The boss can move that far each time it takes a turn. So instead of moving 40 feet a round, the monster could move 10 feet after each player's turn.
This works out to the same amount of movement with an average party of 4 players, but splitting it up might make the boss feel a lot more dynamic and mobile. It constantly moves around the battlefield and changes the situation instead of just sitting there for a full round while the PC's pile on.
- Normal Attacks: You'll want to reduce the damage. If the boss normally makes 1 attack per round, I would roughly divide the damage by 4 to make it work for this system.
- Multi-Attacks: If the boss has a multi-attack (like Claw, Claw, Bite), then each component of that multi attack can just be a single action.
- Big Attacks: For a big attack like a breath weapon, an AOE effect, put it into an action chain. Try 1 or both of following:
- Add 1-2 actions beforehand to foreshadow the attack.
- Add 1-2 actions where the enemy is vulnerable afterwards.
- Specific Attacks: For something specific or niche, consider making it a reaction to a specific trigger. When the dragon is attacked from behind, it uses its tail attack. This is cool because it allows the PC's to learn the boss's behaviour (better stay away from that tail).
- Status effects: For big status like paralyzation or charm, put it in an action chain of 2-3 steps. The effect gets worse each step until it finally accomplishes the full effect.
Example: Adult Red Dragon.
Here is an example using this technique to revise the Adult Red Dragon
from 5e. Click this image for the google drive link.
So, what are the benefits of this idea?
The boss always gets to do something cool.
Using the traditional action economy means that a single opponent doesn't get to do very much. A combat might only last 3 rounds, which means the boss only really gets 3 chances to actually do anything. That's not much! It doesn't feel like an exciting, dynamic opponent. More like an opponent that's holding on and hoping it survives until its one big turn.
This system means that the boss is CONSTANTLY doing cool stuff, every turn. Even if you have 5 PC's and they manage to kill the boss in the first round - that means the boss got to do 5 cool things. So the boss always gets a chance to show off and have some interesting things happen.
More dynamic situations.
Instead of the boss sitting there while you wail on it for 5 player actions, the situation changes every single turn. The boss is constantly moving and doing something, so there is always something new to consider. I think the simple dynamic of "I Go - You Go" would make combat flow a lot better.
Less insta-kill attacks.
Because a solo opponent only gets 1 turn in the round, they need to really deal a serious amount of damage if they want to actually be a threat. That can make encounters very swingy. You're 100% fine, then suddenly you get hit by Claw / Claw / Bite all at once out of nowhere and wiped out instantly. By splitting up the attacks throughout the turns, each individual attack is more reasonable and gives the players more time to react.
But because of the foreshadowing of action chains, you can feel free to really rip into PC's with big, devastating effects - because you've warned them that something big is coming up and given them a chance to avoid it. Effects like charm, paralyzation or being turned to stone would all be fine to use with a bit of foreshadowing.
This technique automatically scales to the number of players you have. 1 player fighting the boss would be just as viable as 8 players fighting it.
You might just need to change the HP a bit. I would consider dividing the HP by 4, and then giving it that much per player.
This is all just a theory at this stage, so if anyone does end up trying it out I'd love to hear the results. Let me know in the comments below.
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