The problem with adopting a highly descriptive name like “The Angry DM” is that people assume that the name tells the entire story. And, while it is true that I am generally angry and I run a lot of Dungeons & Dragons games, I have many other fine qualities. For example, I am manic when it comes to new projects and extremely lazy about following through. So it was that six months ago, I bought a domain and a few books about Word Press and website hosting and came up with an online persona and decided to call myself a webmaster. Once those tasks were done, I promptly starting ignoring all of them. And then, in March, I came up with a brilliant idea for fixing solo monsters and decided to make that my flagship piece. With the idea invented and the decision made, it hardly seemed important to actually write anything. Instead, I went back to ignoring this whole website thing. A series of odd events jarred me into writing the first two parts of my three-part article on boss monsters, but those were the easy ones to write. The first involved me criticizing and complaining, which I am very good at and enjoy a great deal. The second involved me suggesting some things that might be good ideas and ended with a promise that I would shortly show what those ideas looked like in execution. And then, you can guess what happened next. But people just keep asking me to follow through. I find this very unfair.
You see, I did the hard part. I had the brilliant inspiration. I wrote down a lot of words about the inspiration. I set up the website. I got almost one quarter of the way through Word Press for Dummies. It seems to me that the execution should be easy. In fact, I’ve heard from a few folks who have executed their own boss monsters based on my ideas. That means that I did enough. D&D is a do-it-yourself game, after all.
Okay, the truth is execution is hard and I’m lazy. But lately, I’ve been shouting on my soapbox about a lot of high concept stuff and offering very little in the way of useful things you can use in your game. So, here you go. Something useful. A boss monster. I’d say I plan to do more, but I don’t think any of you will believe that for a second.
The Birth of Bloodknuckles
Bloodknuckles was always going to be my boss monster “proof of concept.” The simple, straightforward first attempt that shows how a boss should be put together before I started doing fancy things with extra creatures or skill challenges. I’m not taking the boss monster system out on the autobahn yet, just taking it for a spin around the block.
Some of you might recognize Bloodknuckles’ name from Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron (DDO). This is no accident. When I was first thinking about boss monsters, I was also working on a fun little adaptation of several quests from that game for 4th Edition. Specifically, I was working on a three adventure series that would incorporate the first two quests from the “Waterworks” quest line and “The Kobold’s New Ringleader.” The latter ends with the party slaying a kobold chieftain but, before they can celebrate, a brutish ogre enforcer smashes his way through a door to slay the party. His name was Bloodknuckles.
I suppose it is worth mentioning that I am intimately familiar with Bloodknuckles as that quest is the favorite of my cousin, best friend, and D&D weekly victim, Ryan. When he was away at college, we used DDO as a way to spend time together and we frequently ran through “The Kobold’s New Ringleader” on every difficulty level. Ryan is a very patient and understanding player and will sit still and listen to me drone on about my latest innovations and ideas at great length. Consequently, he was sort of in the development of the boss monster concept and I look forward to slaughtering him with his favorite nemesis. After all, I believe in tough love.
A Boss in Three Acts
As you might remember, the basic idea behind boss monsters was to find a way to fix some of the problems with earlier solo monster designs. While the Monster Manual 3 and other recent products have done a great deal toward fixing solo monsters, I think there is still room for improvement. Beyond that, I the boss monster offers a different play experience.
The key defining trait of the boss monster is that it exists as three stat blocks, not just one, so the battle is split into thirds. The party beats up the boss monster for a little while, but after a certain amount of damage has been done, the boss does something to change the battle. At that point, he is replaced by the next stage monster and the fight continues. The transformation can be as simple as a change in tactics or as elaborate as a transformation into an entirely different form.
With the monster into three different stages, the battle becomes more dynamic but also includes a sense of progress. Further, it prevents the battle from devolving into a grind. Ideally, the tactics that work against one stage don’t work against the next, so the party will have to adapt to each stage. It also forces the party to spread out their best attacks and abilities rather than using them all up early on.
The three stage fight does not address all of the problems with solo design that I outlined in Part 1. Specifically, the three stage fight does not really address the problem of solo monsters being unable to act often enough. And, while the boss monster has two opportunities to eliminate all adverse conditions effecting it by being removed from the battle and replaced by a new creature, the disproportionate effect of such conditions is not entirely mitigated.
As you look over these stat blocks, you will notice that I have made a number of mechanical tweaks to help solve these problems.
Annotations and Notes
I think that the stat blocks speak for themselves at this point. I’ve been very careful to ensure that each individual stat block is recognizable and works like any other monster. In fact, there are only two changes to the structure of the stat block itself and the reasons should be fairly obvious.
I have put all three stat blocks together into a single PDF file for you to download and use freely in your game. You can download it by clicking this link: Bloodknuckles.pdf. I ask only that, if you do use Bloodknuckles in your game, you share your experiences by commenting on this site or by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
However, for those of you who are interested in creating your own boss monsters or just curious about the process I used, I’m going to give a quick tour of the three stages of the fight on the next couple of pages. Again, I am very interested in any feedback you might have.
Finally, please be aware that the annotations are extemporaneous and not cleanly edited. Think of them as a record of my thoughts while I developed Bloodknuckles and forgive any odd wording or typos.
Bloodknuckles (Stage 1)
I envisioned Bloodknuckles initially as a very dirty fighter. While not particularly smart, he was brutally cunning and quick to take advantage of an opening. He also liked to really throw his weight around. Sort of a pit fighter. I think that really shows through in his Dodge and Throw (which I see as a Judo sort of sidestep and takedown) and his brutal stomp on your head and kick you aside.
I am going to apologize in advance for the names of the powers. Sadly, as creative as I like to think I am, I always get stuck when it comes to giving powers evocative names. I recently had a group of alchemist kobolds with powers like “Fiery Goo,” “Black, Sticky Goo,” “Poisonous Goo,” and “Blinding Goo.”
I calculated the HP normally for Bloodknuckles and simply divided it by three to determine how many HP each stage should have. Based on some quick estimates of average damage output and accuracy, Bloodknuckles should spend two to three rounds in each stage against a 3rd-level party. That seems about perfect. Bloodknuckles does not become bloodied like a normal monster. Instead, his third stage is considered bloodied. He simply goes from full to dead.
Each stage has one action point. Originally, I was going to give each stage two action points, but some math about the number of actions and damage output told me I was pushing it.
Threatening Reach is a great way to give a solo more actions and the more mobile the solo, the more attacks it will get as a result. Unlike immediate actions, the solo can make as many opportunity attacks as opportunities arise. Bloodknuckles is very pushy, so there will be a lot of approaches.
Immovable is the first way I am lessening conditions. Actually, forced movement isn’t particularly terrible against solos, but Immovable fits well, flavor-wise, with his stubbornness and, later, his momentum.
You’ll notice there isn’t anything very fancy actually happening here. BK has the greatclub for whacking and the stomp attack for people he knocks down. There is the usual trick to give him two attacks a round and the shift helps him stay mobile, but not too mobile. He can choose between either of the attacks, stomping, kicking, and clubbing.
You will also notice that there are no encounter powers. At the heroic tier, boss monsters don’t need many encounter powers because their ‘stage change’ powers function like encounter powers that are on a recharge of 5 and 6.
Here is where I address the first set of action denial problems: immobilization, restrain, grab, and prone. While I could simply have written in a power that somehow shuts those conditions down, I decided that it would be more interesting if at least some of the problematic conditions made Bloodknuckles more dangerous. Now, if you lock him down or knock him down, he flails around wildly while he regains his footing or breaks free.
I think this is something I will do more of with boss monsters. Among the problematic conditions, I will pick some subset that the monster responds to somehow in a way that turns it into the party’s problem. I can envision, for example, a mind flayer mastermind who not only fights off charms and domination, but whose psychic backlash assaults the attacker’s mind.
Besides, the image of an ogre with a greatclub flailing around like a turtle trying to right himself is just hillarious.
Thick Headed addresses the rest of the action denial conditions that cause serious problems. No action is involved so as to avoid running into the limit of one immediate action per round. The use of the immediate save means there is a chance that he will be affected, so these actions aren’t shut down completely.
Rampage is, of course, the key to the whole boss monster thing. This is the stage change power. It fulfills the key requirements for the transition: it disengages Bloodknuckles, it works no matter what else is going on, and it clearly conveys how Bloodknuckles’ tactics are changing.
Basically, in stage 1, Bloodknuckles is fighting like a brutish pit fighter. He’s clubbing, stomping, kicking, and body checking. While he is difficult to get close to, he’s also not too hard to pin in one spot. He’s standing his ground but probably isn’t running around. He’s just trying to keep from being overwhelmed.
When he has lost 68 HP, he can no longer deny he is being overwhelmed and he is probably feeling a little cornered. And so, he starts to really throw his weight around.
Furious Bloodknuckles (Stage 2)
In stage 1, Bloodknuckles is fairly immobile. He probably stays pretty close to the party’s melee line, throwing them around with abandon and stomping them into the ground. In stage 2, I wanted to shift his tactics but I also wanted to shift his attention. He’s been pounding on the melee line for a bit. It’s time to give him a way to spread himself out and make him a little harder to keep in one place.
The addition of Furious Momentum is a tactical incentive. It requires Bloodknuckles to move around before attacking each round, forcing him to spread his attacks out and chase people all over the battlefield. A DM who doesn’t take advantage of it is leaving damage on the table. This is actually an important trick in monster design in general if you intend anyone other than you to run the monster. Just as an Avenger has powers that create an incentive to isolate a certain creature, monsters can have powers that give the DM an incentive to adopt certain tactics. While Bloodknuckles’ powers haven’t changed a great deal in stage 2, his tactics have, and this trait emphasizes it.
Bloodknuckles is now less pushy. He is charging around the battlefield with abandon and doesn’t need to rely as heavily on forced movement. His Rampage power keeps him moving and makes him difficult to hold in one spot and the requirement that he target three different creatures ensures he is spreading his love around.
Just a quick note that I’ve increased the push by 1 square to work better with Rampage.
Wild Swing is the stage transition power to stage 3. Again, it disengages him by guaranteeing that anyone nearby gets shoved and it again fills the role of an encounter power. It also telegraphs his final set of tactics.
In this stage, Bloodknuckles is hard to keep up with. His speed and mobility force the party melee fighters to chase him around, limiting what they can do and opening them up to opportunity attacks. But this can’t last forever. Bloodknuckles is an ogre, but he’s not inexhaustible. As he enters the final stage, he begins to flag.
Bloody Bloodknuckles (Stage 3)
As noted, Bloodknuckles is now exhausted. His speed, finesse, and cunning are all gone. The best he can manage is just to wildly swing his club around and pound on people. The party should feel like they are winning at this point.
The first thing to notice is that I actually changed Bloodknuckles’ speed to show that he is slowing down. He’s tired and the party is winning. Bloodknuckles is on the ropes and it shows.
The third stage of any boss monster is always bloodied. There are a variety of things the PCs have access to that rely on being bloodied and it is important that they get to come out now.
Bloodknuckles is no longer immovable. This again emphasizes that he’s exhausted and the party is winning. While he still has a few surprises in store, the party should feel like they have the upper hand.
It’s no accident that Bloodknuckles has lost his double attack power. Again, he’s exhausted. But, while it was important to show his exhaustion, it is also important not to hamstring him. So, he has a nice area attack that lets him still hit several targets. I also gave him a daze attack here for the same reason.
Stumble Forward is an interesting power because, again, it shows exhaustion. Basically, I see Bloodknuckles warming up for a charge and discovering he just doesn’t have it in him, so he falls forward, literally on top of the party. He ends up flat on his face, the party ends up shoved out of the way. And, if the party has been paying attention, they will realize that he is now prone and set up to Flail Around.
It is still important to have the immediate action, but this one lacks any sort of grace and finesse. Bloodknuckles can’t sidestep and do his fancy takedown anymore. All he can do is club someone when they hit him.
Final Lurch is a death throe power. I like the idea of a boss monster doing that one last little bit of damage. And I had already written in a way for Bloodknuckles to do a belly flop onto the party. One more can’t hurt. Well, actually, it will hurt.