The D&D Boss Fight (Part 4)

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Apart from the general ranting, raving, and what I will laughingly call “advice” on this website, I’ve now published two complex subsystems here: The Boss Fight and The Slaughterhouse. Now, some of you may be surprised to learn that I’m not much of an altruist. I didn’t set out to write and publish neat ideas for other people to use. I set out to improve my own home game, lost control of what I was doing, and ending up building something that I thought was elegant and versatile enough to be useful to others. I only codified everything because I tend to do that anyway.And, if you look at my two subsystems, you might notice something interesting. First, I built The Boss Fight system to improve dragons after they failed to live up to my dream. Second, I built The Slaughterhouse system to facilitate running a big dungeon. Now that I have improved both Dungeons and Dragons, I suppose I am pretty much done. What else is there? I guess I can come up with some slight balances to the Ampersand. After that article, I can take this website down  and I’ll have a lot more free time on my hands.

At any rate, The Boss Fight was originally intended to fix dragons and, as I’ve said, I lost control and devoted more time to the system than the actual monsters. The first example of what I was trying to do was not even a dragon.

But I am here to make up for it with my entry into Colmarr’s Monster Mayhem Blog Carnival and, in so doing, codify the final Boss Fight system.

The Core Boss Fight System

A Boss is a special type of Solo monster. Mechanically, it has the same hit points, defenses, attacks, damage, and save bonuses as any other Solo Monster, there are a few key differences. The biggest difference is that the Boss Monster consists of three separate stat blocks, called Stages, that it proceeds through as the fight progresses. All three Stages must be defeated or overcome as part of a single encounter and the total encounter is worth as much XP as a normal Solo Monster.

Each stage of the Boss Monster has exactly one third of the hit points of a normal Solo Monster and has no bloodied state. Each stage also includes a triggered action that is triggered when that Stage is reduced to 0 or fewer HP. That action causes the Boss Monster to perform some final action that usually results in it disengaging with the party and ultimately causes the Stage to be removed from the battle completely and replaced with the next Stage as if a new monster had entered the fight. The new Stage rolls initiative and acts normally. This action is called a Stage Transition.

The Stage Transition never requires an action (it’s ‘no action’) and it always includes language that indicates that it is usable regardless of what is happening. It will also specifically note that the old creature is removed from the battle and replaced by an entirely new creature so that nothing carries over from one Stage to the next. This is done to trump and/or prevent any odd rules interactions that might come. Nothing carries over from one Stage to the next; each Stage is completely modular.

The third Stage of a Boss Monster is always its Bloodied Stage. This allows the party to use abilities that key off of a bloodied monster. Thus, each Boss Monster in Stage 3 has a trait that indicates that is always considered bloodied.

Each Stage of the Boss Monster has one action point.

These are pretty much the core rules of the Boss Monster. In order to qualify as a Boss Monster under my system, those are the core rules. Everything else is really just window dressing.

Window Dressing

In Part 1 and Part 2 of The D&D Boss Fight, I discussed a number of additional things that make the Boss Fight system a true improvement. These had to do with the action economy, power selection, and limiting vulnerability to various conditions. Originally, I was going to call these improvements part of the Boss Fight system, but ultimately, I chose not to. It would be very easy to create a couple of powers called Boss Monster Resilience and Boss Monster Extra Actions and just slap them on every Boss. But, when I was sitting down and building Bloodknuckles, I realized that that would be very limiting. One of the beauties of 4E monster design is that the modular, exception-based approach is extremely versatile. An infinite amount of variety can be built into the structure of the powers. So, I have Bloodknuckles, who is stubborn and resists dazes and stuns, but he has special behavior when he is knocked prone or grabbed. And I have the young red dragon (below) who doesn’t resist being knocked prone, grabbed, slowed, or immobilized because I wanted part of the fight to be about knocking him out of the air. While I agree that every Boss Monster needs to limit its vulnerability to various conditions, I don’t want to make every Boss Monster the same. I want to leave open the possibility for the mind flayer that psychically retaliates against domination attempts, the ogre that flails around when he gets knocked on his huge rear end, and the strafing dragon that can get pulled out of the sky with the right spell but remains just as dangerous on the ground.

The same is true of the action economy problem. A lot of folks on forums and in e-mail have suggested I dispense with a lot of the complication and just give every Boss/Solo two turns every round. Again, that works just fine for some, but there are other ways to achieve the same effect. Mobility powers can make up for lack of move actions (as in Bloodknuckles’ case). Threatening reach, minor action attacks, triggered actions, auras, minion summoning, and numerous other creative options can fill out the action economy nicely. Once again, I wanted to keep the versatility.

This does mean there is a lot more pressure on the DM who wants to create his own Boss Monster. He needs to make sure that he addresses, at minimum, the stunned, dominated, and dazed conditions and, for good measure, immobilized, restrained, and prone. Ignoring one of these conditions should be a conscious choice. And the DM should see if he can’t address at least a few of them in a flavorful way. Likewise, the DM needs to make sure that the Boss Monster has the right damage output. He needs to get four or five normal attacks out each round and he needs to be able to move around the battlefield a bit.

Beyond that, the DM also needs to decide what each Stage means and how the boss transitions between each Stage. A well-designed Boss Monster will telegraph its new strategy in its Stage Transition if possible, though that may not always be the case. The DM also needs to design each Stage in such a way that it changes the way the monster engages the party and involves different PCs. The monster needs a way to spread its love around the party, as I say.

Unless you are doing something tricky (see below), each Stage should be reasonably consistent with the others and anything that changes drastically should be hinted at in the Stage Transition or in the monster’s powers.

Ultimately, Boss Monster design is still monster design. There is an art to it and every little step can’t be explained or detailed. Even trying to explain and detail the steps will limit creativity which is at odds with my desire to maintain versatility. So, the best I can do is offer suggestions and examples.

At the end of the day, though, if you want an easy way to handle the tough parts and just want to build the fun parts, steal the Draconic Alacrity and Draconic Resilience from the red dragon below. Don’t feel badly, I stole Draconic Resilience from Chris Sims (from his article: Mailbag 6 – All By Myself, Part 3; I had something similar but I liked his name and wording better). He might accuse me of stealing Draconic Alacrity too, but I had already been using that name. Don’t let him tell you otherwise.

Beyond worrying about the action economy, conditions, and the Stage Transitions, each Stage is actually a little less complex than a normal Solo Monster. The Stage Transition provides a high output encounter power that occurs as often as a recharge “5,6”. An additional encounter power with no recharge in one of the stages is useful for some extra variety and flavor. But remember that each Stage will probably be alive for only two to three rounds. One of the nice features of the Boss Fight is that it doesn’t require a lot of tracking of encounter powers.

Doing Something Tricky

I’ve mentioned the possibility of replacing one Stage of a Boss Monster with a group of other monsters or with a Skill Challenge. This is actually very easy to do in a fair and balanced way thanks to the tools D&D 4E provides. The only reason I haven’t given an example of that yet is because, especially with skill challenges, you can’t simply stat up a monster. You need to consider the environment and the scene as well. But I have one in the works for a white dragon.

Any stage of a Boss Monster can be replaced with its equivalent XP worth of elite, standard, or even (in theory) minion monsters. The equivalent XP is about one third of the total Boss Monster’s XP. So, you can have the Boss Monster that breaks into several smaller monsters and then reunites itself for the last stage. You can have the guy who retreats from the throne room and forces a fight with his guards. And so on.

For a skill challenge, you can still use equivalent XP as a guide, so a complexity 2 or 3 skill challenge of the same level of the monster is about the equivalent of one stage. But it is important to remember that the skill challenge is being substituted for some of the Boss Monster’s damage output. That means, the skill challenge probably needs to deal some damage on failed attempts and it should deal about as much damage as a normal attack. This damage should be directly to hit points, not to healing surges, to keep the encounter going. The success or failure of the skill challenge should impact the start of the next fight in some way, but it shouldn’t interact with the next stage of the creature (say, by taking away its hit points) because the encounter balance will be thrown off by the change. If you aren’t worried about these things, that’s up to you. The best skill challenges to fit in here should be about damage avoidance and about reengaging. For example, a villain could activate a series of mechanical traps, filling the room with whirling blades and shooting spikes. He flees and leaves the party to quickly evade the traps and try to catch up. They take some damage for failed attempts and, if they fail the whole skill challenge, the enemy gets a surprise round when the combat is reengaged.

It is vitally important to remember that when you replace a Boss Monster stage with something, that something is taking up the space of the Boss Monster for one third of the fight. If you have the boss monster summon two guards to fight alongside it in the second stage, that’s not the same thing. Unless the two guards are built as part of the boss monster’s output, you’ve added new creatures to the fight and you owe the party more XP as a result. Likewise, if the skill challenge can’t damage the party, you need to either make up for the possible damage somehow or make it a fourth stage separate from the boss monster with separate experience.

Remember also that it is very important to keep everything as part of one encounter. If the party decides to take a short rest between the skill challenge and the next stage, they’ve ended the encounter. They shouldn’t be able to simply pick up where they left off.

Reality Checking

I realize that not everyone has access to all sorts of wonderful play testing resources (I certainly don’t, unless you count my home game).  Apart from using your creations in your home game, it is very important to do a reality check on your monster. If you use the guidelines for setting attack rolls, damage, defenses, HP, and the other game statistics, you can be assured that all of that is pretty reasonable. However, there are two important Reality Checks you should consider.

The Output Check: look at your monster and imagine it fighting an average party of the same level. Consider, for instance, a fighter, rogue, ranger, cleric, and wizard battling your boss. How many attacks is the boss monster making each round? Remember to consider all of its triggered and opportunity actions. Who is getting hit? Is all of the damage stacked up on one character or is it spread around?

I’ll use Bloodknuckles as an example. In addition to his ability to make two attacks per round, he also had threatening reach and a reaction to being missed. Assuming Bloodknuckles uses his forced movement and his mobility, he’s going to have two normal attacks and one or two opportunity attacks. His minor action will come up once or twice. He’ll be hitting the fighter and rogue (who need to stay in melee) and probably either the cleric or the ranger (depending on who is melee and who is ranged). That’s between four and five attacks per round, so it works well. In the second stage, he is encouraged to move around and charge far away creatures. The melee characters will be trying to stay close, so Bloodknuckles will probably be barreling all over the place and getting everyone.

The What Do I Do Now Check: while you are watching the party fight your boss monster in your head, keep an eye on each of the imaginary PCs. Are any of them left standing around with nothing to do and no way to engage the foe? That’s not a good thing. Make sure everyone has some way to play in the fight in at least some of the stages. It’s okay if some PCs are not as effective in some stages, but they all need to get into the action in at least two of the stages.

Dragons in My World

First of all, I’ve decided that all dragons in my world will have Draconic Alacrity and Draconic Resilience to cover the action economy and the condition problem. It’s not that I am trying to take the easy way out, it’s just that I want those to be uniquely dragon things. Dragons are incredibly fast and resilient. Other Boss Monsters might have similar powers, but dragon, in my game, will always mean Alacrity and Resilience first.

Second, I love the flavor of dragons described in the preview book Worlds and Monsters. I love the idea that they were some of the first sentient beings the gods created and they were nothing more than raw elemental fury wrapped in a mortal body by Io and then given life. In my world, as dragons progress through their stages, their elemental furnace starts to spill out.

At the same time, all dragons will have a growing aura as their elemental fury becomes less and less contained. When its attacks become their most elemental, their aura also starts scouring away resistances. As you will see, there is still a benefit to having an elemental resistance, but it doesn’t shut down all of the dragon’s attacks.

In my world, the chromatic dragon is the baseline. It is raw elemental fury in a mortal shell that starts to spill out during the battle. The aura and the attacks becoming more elemental are traits of chromatic dragons because of how they were made. Metallic dragons in my world were sort of a second attempt at dragons. Io had some practice and worked with Moradin to incorporate alchemical radicals into his draconic creations. The resulting metallic dragons are more mortal creature, more magical, and less raw elemental. They will have a similar feel, but they won’t be as strongly focused on auras and elemental attacks. On the contrary, my catastrophic dragons go in the other direction. They are uncontrolled elemental power in the vague shape of a dragon. So, I’ve created a spectrum (get it?) for my dragons that emphasize their bestial nature or their elemental nature.



The Young Red Dragon (Stage 1) Stat Block

The Young Red Dragon (Stage 1)

The Young Red Dragon (Stage 2) Stat Block

The Young Red Dragon (Stage 2)

The Young Red Dragon (Stage 3) Stat Block

The Young Red Dragon (Stage 3)

15 thoughts on “The D&D Boss Fight (Part 4)

  1. Very good idea. I will test this and worldbreaker rules in my games and will be able to tell more. Right now I think maybe creatures in defferent stages should be more different?
    Right now I frequently use one trick for standart monsters – when melee monster is bloodied it retreats and starts to fight at range. Of course it works not with any monster, but with solo it could be more pronounced. Like at first stage a self-confident solo brute fights face to face with plenty of close bursts. On second stage it feels the danger and changer to perhaps a skirmisher, summoning some reinforcment. And on third stage we’ll see kinda artillery, hiding behind his henchmen backs.
    Of course there could be other ways.

  2. I love what you are coming up with here ADM, I like the idea that the boss changes or even evolves as he realises this is the fight of his life. So he should, the concept is a good one, and its why this keeps appearing in computer games. I think the jury is out on if this or the Worldbreaker system will work better, or be easier to stat out for DM’s (specially new ones like me) but its still a creative stab in the right direction.

    I’ve got two questions if you’ll indulge me, firstly the power mentioned above says, that between its two seperate rounds, it can use an immediate action, no where is it listed on the sheet what an immediate action is? Is this a standard, a minor or a move action or is it any action? But one only, as opposed to the three normal actions one gets within one round?

    Secondly this whole discussion about solos has got people mentioned rules tweaks specifically in DMG2 MM2 and MM3, I only own the three core books. If I am looking at challenging my heroic tiered group and changing the old monster in MM1 – where and with what books might I start?

    Thanks again


  3. @Arbanax Thanks! I’m glad you like it.

    An immediate action is a type of action. In D&D, 4E, the types of actions are standard, move, minor, free, immediate, and opportunity. Immediate actions include both immediate reactions and immediate interrupts. The young red dragon has one immediate reaction (Wing Snap or Spitfire depending on the stage).

    The trouble with an immediate action (reaction or interrupt) is that a creature is generally allowed only one immediate reaction per round. In order to give the dragon two full sets of actions, I needed to explicitly state that the dragon doesn’t just get one immediate action per round, it gets one for each of its turns. That way, it can use its Wing Snap or Spitfire once between each of its turns, not once every two turns. PHB 267-268 describes the action types including immediate actions.

    First of all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the game published in the first three core rule books. If those are all you have, the game works. But, as for what changed:

    The solos and elites in MM2 were built using slight tweaks to the rules for creating them (specifically defenses and HP). If you don’t want to take the time to create your own elites and solos, MM2 has a lot of good monsters.

    DMG2 explained the changes in MM2 and gave DMs better advice for building elites and solos, gave rules for creating minions, and also provided some new options for making custom monsters (such as Monster Themes). If you like making new monsters of your own, you need the DMG2. But DMG2 also did a lot great work on skill challenges, adventure design, and gave instructions for building custom traps. DMG2 is actually more useful to me than DMG1.

    MM3 changed just about everything to do with monster design. Apart from the new statblock, all of the numbers got tweaked (specifically damage and attack rolls) and the philosophy of monster design changed as well. Basically, monsters now do more things automatically or on a miss so that the monster can fill its role even if it misses on attack rolls (soldiers mark a target even when they miss, for example). MM3 contains a lot of improvements, subtle and overt, and its worth having. But, it doesn’t provide a good range of heroic tier monsters (it focusses more on paragon and epic).

    Finally, in order to allow DMs to use the MM3 changes, WotC published an update in July to the custom monster tables in the DMG. Again, if you like to create your own monsters, get the update. Its a free pdf download from (and the archive contains all of the older rules updates for free as well).

    Finally, my advice is this: get the DMG2 and the Rules Update. DMG2 has so many useful things that I can’t imagine not having it.

    If you have a DDI subscription and can access the compendium, you can already see the MM3 and MM2 monsters, but if you don’t, you should consider picking those up in the future if you’d prefer not to make too many of your own monsters. But, in the heroic tier especially, you can live without both and I’d suggest grabbing MM2. The update/MM3 didn’t change much about the heroic tier and you can live without it.

  4. If you are still allowing the PCs to spend one healing surge and regain 1 encounter during the stage changes, you may want to change to “spend 1 healing surge, and regain either 1 encounter power or 2 power points” to account for psionic players.

  5. HI ADM thanks for the comprehensive advice, I shall take that to heart and take a look at the errata again, before making some decisions about what comes next.

    Out of interest can you give me some examples of monosters as I have a subscription to DDI and I can compare old with new through that, if I know what I am looking at.

    Thanks again.

  6. Hi there, does anyone have a retooled level 1 white dragon (from the Kobold Hall adventure)based on this concept? I could take the time to create my own, but I’m still learning and wouldn’t mind using something already made as a guide if anyone has it.

  7. I’ve used the Boss Fight template a couple times now, and I’ve found a great basis for ideas are World of Warcraft bosses. I’ve noticed that they have used a template like this several times(think Onyxia or the Black Knight from ToC), and modeling after these have worked quite well.

  8. I’m really glad I came across these articles. I have been working on something very similar for “staged” boss fights for a very long time now. I’ve experimented with different ideas that were completely contained in one monster stat block. These were moderate successes, but did not completely fill my need for more epic battles.

    Then MM3 came out with the two-stage version of Lolth (so there is official precedent for this sort of thing). She was really well designed and I longed to see her in action, but my players were currently in Heroic tier.

    I have a feeling this style of boss design may be catching on in more than the wonderful world of homebrew.

  9. Just finished a session when my players faced their first “boss fight” – a kraken attacking their ship. First it grappled at them from the water, then it dove below the ship and tried to sink it with tentacles (a bunch of individual minion tentacles), and finally it heaved its dying bulk onto the deck, snapping the mainmast and thrashing about in all directions in its death throes. The stat blocks weren’t perfect (I’m still a bit rusty as a 4E GM), but the general concept flowed nicely and was well received. Kudos!

  10. Does anyone still post here, three years on?

    Has the Angry DM updated these rules for post-MM3? At least for me, I used Bloodknuckles, and he was vastly more fun than another opponent I used the same day (a more conventionally-designed one), but he hit very hard. Then again, I updated BK’s damage to post-MM3, and maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

    Last Sunday, I ran a session of 4e, and used a creature I’d designed using advice from this site (a solo controller 11, against 10th-level PCs), and also Sly Flourish’s advice (using skill checks to tie up PC attention). There were a number of orbs scattered around the battlefield, three of them, which gave the monster: +4 to all defenses, regeneration 10, and resist all 5. Anyone who has seen Sly Flourish’s demilich will know exactly what I’m talking about.

    The first phase was fairly brutal, because the PCs spent two to three rounds trying to disable the orbs, often hampered by their opponent hitting them with immobilize attacks. In the third round the boss had taken only 7 damage, since he was hardly ever hit (or even attacked), and was regenerating damage at a pretty decent rate.

    Good thing they took down the orbs, especially the regeneration ones, because the second phase was actually five creatures. Regenerating 50 hp/round would have been … nasty.

    The third phase went much faster. The creature was doing more damage, but was also taking more damage. Half the party seemed to be unconscious at any one time, and the avenger was dropped to literally 1 hit point away from negative bloodied (eg death).

    All in all, great fun, and only one player complained (and he’s the type to complain about everything).

  11. @Jake I just found this the other day and used it to design an encounter with a Dragon, so I guess yeah 3 years later people are still reading it 🙂

    @Everyone I’m curious to get Feedback for an encounter I designed. Basically I had a red dragon that spend the first phase flying around, then smashed into the ground in a volcano crater causing cooled lava to be shattered. A skill challenge brought the players to the nest of the dragon after it limped off, where they finished it off. I think perhaps I am too easy on my players as it didn’t seem difficult enough, although I think they enjoyed it. I’d be willing to send my full write up for the encounter to anyone’s who interested to get some feeback.

  12. I’m about to use this format for a chimera solo in D&D Next. Instead of being the mythical creature with three heads, I’m going to run it as a single-headed monster that transforms twice, bringing all the heads into play with different fighting styles per stage. Thanks for the idea!

  13. I used Bloodknuckles last night, and it was a laugh! So far my group has only encountered a white dragon wyrmling as a solo, and the beat ridiciously easy. A part of 4 had a really interesting figth with blooknuckles buffed to be a lvl 5 solo. Everybody was very involved and had to adjust to a monster attacking them 3-4 times a round, even more when they triggered a phase transition. I my group gets used to it I think this can be a very valuable tool for building interesting solo encounters. I will let you know further progress, as I have plans to try out Sarshan from your other thread. Cheers!

  14. I’m working on setting up something like this for 5E. Is there any chance you’ll do an article converting this to 5E? The math is different for the different editions, and they did something similar in the monster manual with legendary monsters, but that’s mainly for the higher CR monsters. How would you tone it down for a boss-style encounter for something maybe level 1-3?

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