January 31st, 2010

geekier than thou

Roleplaying GM Tip: Adding minions to boss fights

As my regular readers know, for about two months I've been running a game of Fireborn, an RPG where all the characters are reincarnated dragons living in human bodies in the modern world. Strictly speaking, this isn't a post about Fireborn, but I'm going to start it off with an illustrative anecdote from the ongoing campaign.

The players' first fight in their characters' full draconic forms was against a hydra -- a fully-powered fellow dragon with a range of formidable abilities and a massive karma pool (which powers special abilities and turns the tide in opposed rolls). It was about as powerful a single creature as Fireborn characters are ever likely to fight. The characters disabled it in a single combat round, wounding it severely in a counterattack and then crippling it with a combination of skills and powers that allowed {S}' paralyzing bite to land, even before {A}'s Disintegrate spell went off and instantly killed it. The characters didn't get so much as a scratch.

To this day, the same group of players still tell stories about an epic encounter from our previous AD&D campaign. The very first thing that happened in the fight was for the party's greatsword-wielding fighter to land a spectacular critical hit and nearly one-shot the Big Boss, who spent the rest of the combat desperately trying to escape and never landed a single blow. However, the Big Boss had help in the form of a mind-controlled spellcaster and a modest army of zombies, who engaged the PCs in a chaotic melee and very nearly wiped out the party. (Mostly thanks to Little Timmy the ENGINE OF KARMIC JUSTICE, but that's another story.)

They were both compelling boss fights with a dangerous foe presented as a serious challenge. Both bosses quickly fell to the party's superior luck or strategy. The difference -- and the factor that made the second fight so much more epic?

Minions.

Most GMs have been conditioned by the age we grow up in (and the media we consume) to arrange climactic confrontations against a single overwhelming foe. We watch movies with gripping one-on-one battles and play computer games where our avatar faces down lovingly rendered huge enemies at the end of an area. This is, in itself, not a bad thing; your players have gotten that same conditioning and go into boss fights ready for a climactic solo standoff. However, not all media is created equal -- and pencil-and-paper roleplaying games have a number of factors that work together to make large-scale battles a better choice.

Here, then, for gamemasters both old and new, are:

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