Baxil (baxil) wrote,

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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?


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:

10 reasons to use minions in your boss fights

1. With minions, you don't have to cheat to make the fight awesome.

This is the core idea, the one that every single reason on this list will refer back to: Virtually all "boss fights" in modern media work by creating artificial difficulty. He's only vulnerable in the glowing red spot on the back of his head, or ignores the uberspell you've been using to beat everything in the game, or has over 100x the hit points of the normal enemies surrounding him: these are all standard tropes in video game boss fights, but in a pencil-and-paper RPG setting where the players and enemies are constructed with the same mechanics and powers, you have to stomp the rules to create a boss of this type.

And let's not forget the movie tropes, like the Big Bad who can effortlessly disarm all the protagonists but slowly falls to their hand-to-hand attacks once they reach the climax; since RPG characters and opponents are expected to have a single set of statistics, it can be very difficult to justify the stats that would be required to give him Plot Invulnerability before the final scene.

All of these tropes can be effortlessly, and believably, recreated by giving the Big Bad a sufficiently large army. If the characters have to exhaust the magic points they would need for their uberspell before ever reaching the boss, or have to fight through an army of mooks before getting to the "vulnerable" leader, or if the army can capture the PCs and disarm them before presenting them to the general -- then why break the rules to get the same effect?

2. Minions give everyone in the party something to do.

It's almost inevitable that in a fight against a single difficult enemy, one or more characters will be reduced to uselessness. This applies no matter the genre of RPG, but AD&D provides especially illustrative examples because of the highly specialized roles each party member takes. If you're fighting a huge undead immune to the rogue's sneak attack, or a high-Spell-Resistance monster that turns the sorceror into a clumsy quarterstaff wielder, or a high-AC monster that is impossible for your scout/skirmisher/monk to hit ... then at least one of your players is going to sigh and volunteer for a soda run. A broad variety of enemies ensures that, even if a particular player can't hit the boss, they have an important role: crowd control, so that the more effective members of the party aren't getting ganged up on.

3. Minions ensure everyone in the party is challenged.

Likewise, a boss that has a specific attack style (lots of magic, straight physical attacks, special powers, etc) will have a harder time damaging some characters than others. To return to the AD&D example: your rogue might be evasive enough to be virtually immune to area-effect spells, while your fighter shrugs off physical blows and your mage can ignore mind-affecting powers. A single boss can only do one of these things per round and generally won't have great strength in more than one of those categories. Give them minions who can strike at all of the characters' weak points, and you'll be able to wear everyone down rather than leaving some characters totally untouched.

Let's also keep in mind that a single source of damage will tend to concentrate that damage on a single target! If your boss is the sole damage-dealer, and has enough oomph to take out over 25% of the party's hit points, this is more likely to leave you with one dead PC and several barely injured (unless you force him to spread out his attacks). Having multiple minions target different PCs make this feel more natural, rather than providing an undertone of "I'm trying to not kill you guys".

4. Minions offer a sense of tangible progress as the fight advances.

In most RPG systems, damage doesn't affect combat effectiveness and taking the boss down from 100% HP to 50% HP has no tangible in-game effect. However, if you've taken the boss' skeleton army down from 20 warriors to 10, they're only making half as many swings at you; there are now gaps in their line that your skirmishers can charge through to confront his ranged attackers; and the characters are visibly seeing the tide turn in their favor.

Of course, in games like Fireborn where characters' combat effectiveness falls as they get hurt, you need minions. Period. Because in a solo fight, the very first hit the PCs land will immediately begin turning the fight in their favor -- and with the weight of numbers on their side, very little will be able to stand toe-to-toe with them without having some friends along.

5. Adding minions won't come back to haunt you once the players win.

Let's revisit Rule #1 for a second: Don't create artificial difficulty by cheating. This is for your own protection as a gamemaster. If you buff up the boss' stats with awesome equipment -- then your players are going to loot the corpse and buff themselves up with the spoils. If you come up with an in-game explanation for why the boss is immune to magic or how he shrugs off half of the damage he's dealt -- clever players will find a way to reproduce the mechanic themselves. If you give the boss unique combat maneuvers -- the characters will learn them and use them.

If, on the other hand, you make the boss three times as hard by giving him two bodyguards of equivalent level -- then the players get no game-breaking benefit from winning the fight, only the paltry equipment looted from the additional combatants. (Experience rewards for equally difficult fights should be the same, regardless of the method used to increase difficulty.)

6. Minions let you easily adjust the encounter's difficulty level based on circumstances.

When designing bosses, you're always walking the fine line between cakewalk and Total Party Kill. There are a lot of variables that are hard to account for until the actual gameplay occurs: Will the party actually find that hidden treasure chest that contains the overpowered sword you expect them to use? What if a nameless soldier gets off a lucky shot that cripples the party's main damage-dealer right before the fight scene? How will the dice behave when the boss himself appears?

Once you've spent a lot of time crafting the boss' stats and listing out his spells and figuring out his attack strategy, it can be difficult to redo them on the fly to keep from wiping a prematurely weakened party out -- especially while still providing a legitimate challenge. On the other hand, if your main challenge from the boss fight was going to come from 20 skeleton warriors that surround the players, it's utterly trivial to throw 10 at a weakened party or 30 at a group that's been breezing through the dungeon. (You can even call in reinforcements if the fight is easier than you expected -- but be VERY careful about reinforcements, because your players are likely to feel cheated if more enemies arrive after they've beaten down the first wave. 20 all at once has quite a different feel from 10 + 10.)

One of my most-loved tactics here is to catch the PCs between two forces with different goals. Once the PCs start fighting force #1 and force #2 arrives on the scene, you can change #2's behavior based on who looks like they're going to win the existing conflict. PCs getting the upper hand suddenly find themselves in a pincer attack, and PCs getting beaten down have a source of reinforcement and/or distraction so that they can make good their escape.

7. Minions keep the fight from ending prematurely.

What do you do when your lovingly crafted solo boss takes a bad hit in the first round of combat, or blows a resistance roll he should have easily made, or fumbles a spell that goes off in his own face? There are basically three options. (1) Use GM fiat (i.e., cheat) to keep the encounter on the rails: either lie about the bad die roll, or give the boss 100 more hit points than you had anticipated, or retroactively make him immune to the PC's brilliant game-breaker. (2) Give in and draw the fight to an abrupt end. While honorable (and while this gives the players a great story about how badass their characters are), this is dissatisfying. (3) Add a new element -- like a surge of mystical energy that sends the fight into Round 2, or the Boss Behind The Boss, or an army out to avenge Dear Leader's death -- so that the planned boss fight can become just a preview of the "real" boss fight you throw together on the fly.

None of these are great options. (Of the three, #3 is probably the least bad, if you've got the skill and creativity to do it.) But why not prevent the problem, by having minions appear along with the boss so that a one-shot kill doesn't finish the encounter?

The second half of this is that distributed forces aren't crippled as badly by status effects or poor luck. If a spell has a 50% chance of causing paralysis, it will either take out half of your minions or have a 50% chance of stopping your solo boss fight cold. If your solo boss has a 40% chance of doing 100 points of damage, he might go the entire combat without landing a blow -- but 10 minions each with 40% chances of doing 10 points of damage will generally leave your party dinged for about 40.

8. Minions reward good tactics and outside-the-box thinking.

In AD&D, a wimpy enemy is basically a piece of meat with a sign saying "FREE ATTACK!" for a fighter with Cleave. When faced with an army, mages with area-effect attack spells get to smile and unleash the full fury of their power, rather than wasting a fireball on a single target that's probably going to dodge it anyway.

But true gamers don't stop there. To experienced players, an army of weaker enemies backing up the boss can be a force multiplier ... for themselves.

Some recent epic fights in our Fireborn campaign show off just how crazy this can get. For instance, a persistent foe named Hugh MacHugh was setting up a multi-part ambush for {M}, stacking the odds on his side with a pincer attack and a hidden sniper. {S} snuck into the sniper's nest, took him out one-on-one, and was there with tactical fire support as the fight began. {A} infiltrated the minions that were being used in the pincer attack and convinced them to switch sides. This turned a fairly even 4-on-16 fight into a 14-on-5 blowout, and gave the players a chance to feel really proud of their teamwork and planning.

Also, in a mythic-age fight where the players' dragon characters were fighting a 4-on-4 grudge match with some titans, the titans decided to cheat and bring help. A bunch of trolls rushed the dragons' positions. The dragons neutralized them, and were briefly discussing using the trolls as impromptu missiles against an enemy spellcaster (hee!) until a plot event made the point moot.

I would like to add here that minions are definitely not the only way to tactically liven up a boss fight! Mike (who GMs the AD&D game in which I currently play the monk Sascha the White) has gone above the call of duty on solo boss fights, such as one in which we took on a spider the size of a large building. (We eventually won by coordinating our attacks on its legs so that we were able to throw it off balance and topple it into some fast-moving water.) Not every boss fight needs minions, but virtually all of them could benefit from some aid.

9. Minions create opportunities for an unexpected Crowning Moment of Awesome.

Remember Little Timmy? (I mentioned him way back up in the third paragraph.) If not, that's okay: my players certainly do! The Flaming Zombie of Vengeance has become one of the greatest legends of our gaming circle, and it would never have happened if I had decided to buff up the boss and throw him at the group solo.

The best moment of the Hugh MacHugh fight mentioned in #8 also came from a faceless minion who scored an exceptionally lucky roll late in the fight. At point-blank range against {A}'s character Ivan, he leveled the gun at Ivan's face, smiled, and pulled the trigger -- only to go white-faced as he realized he had just run out of ammunition (I had kept count, knowing that an earlier barrage had almost run him out). The minion panicked, threw the gun itself at Ivan's face (dealing inconsequential damage), and ran -- at which point Ivan picked the gun back up, threw it back at the minion, and knocked him out with a single blow to the head.

Then there was the minion in an earlier Spycraft campaign who fired a rocket launcher at our sniper (who had set up a nest in the guard tower of a facility we were infiltrating). One poor roll later, the rocket blew through the open front window of the tower, and out the open back window into empty space. "Hang on," one of our more observant players piped up, knowing that a Huey full of reinforcements was about to land and make our life miserable. "Does it hit the incoming helicopter?" The GM sighed, rolled for it (because you ALWAYS roll for these things), and the Story Dice got amused. Two natural 20s later, tiny fragments of Huey fluttered down to the ground.

Seriously, I think I have more awesome gaming stories about minions than I do about the bosses themselves.

10. The reasons not to use minions aren't as compelling as they initially seem.

"But Bax!" you cry. "You've overlooking a huge factor here: in a solo boss fight, I as the GM only have to play one opponent, and I can keep the action easily moving. Every minion I add is not only more work for me, but also more time in which the players are twiddling their thumbs and watching me make die rolls."

This is true. But! If you stay focused on your role as a storyteller, adding minions doesn't have to slow your game.

Minions should have simple and repetitive strategies; their job is to run interference for the guy calling the shots. Figure out their role ahead of time, use them blindly and efficiently, and take any shortcuts possible to resolve their role in combat efficiently.

Such as: When NPCs attack NPCs, simplify it down to a single die roll. Let luck play a part, but screw mechanics -- guesstimate their relative chances of success and briefly describe the results based on which way your single die swings. You're there to tell a story to your players. Keep them the focus.

When minions attack your PCs, strip those minions down to the core statistics as much as possible -- and then use those stats without looking them up! If it's going to take more than two seconds to get the right number, then just make up arbitrary values that are in the right general range, roll your dice, and do your math. (Who's going to complain if your mind goes blank and you decide on the spur of the moment to have your skeletons attack at +3 to hit and 1d8+1 damage, instead of stopping and looking up the canonical Monster Manual value? If you answer "my players," then you need to do one of the following: indulge them by memorizing statistics the same way they do; stop showing them your dice and just give them the results; or give them a lecture about who's in charge.) When you move a bunch of tokens on the combat map, toss a handful of d20s and d8s, state "3 of the 6 skeletons hit you, take 11 damage," and move on, then you've just run a wall of minions in the same time it would have taken you to consult statistics, plot strategy, and "properly" calculate attack numbers for your solo boss.

Some games, like Fireborn, do tend to bog down as you add combatants -- because every combat roll is a contested roll. But it's not as bad as it sounds, because every contested roll means a player is actively making choices and having game effects! (The thing to beware is that the total time of a combat scales up with the number of opponents; make sure you leave enough time in the play session to finish what you start.) You can also house-rule some streamlining in -- such as declaring that any attack against a sufficiently helpless opponent (e.g., if penalties have reduced an opponent's roll to 6 fewer dice than you) automatically succeeds against a minion, or by saying "The combat's basically over at this point, do you guys want to still play it out?" once the odds are sufficiently in the characters' favor.

Fireborn also makes explicit a mechanic that many GMs in other systems have already implicitly done: they have two different kinds of NPC trackers. There's a "Named NPC Character Sheet" for people who may present a credible challenge to the players, and there's an "Unnamed NPC Character Sheet" for minions, which just shows their most-used raw statistics and lets you predetermine the dice pools and the actions they'll take in aggressive/neutral/defensive combat stances. That's the sort of attitude to take when adding minions to boss fights: figure out how they'll complicate the action for the real stars of the show, and then let them serve their purpose.

If you do that, you can have much richer encounters that engage a broader range of your players -- and without much extra hassle. Now, go forth and game!
Tags: fireborn, roleplaying

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  • If this is to be goodbye

    I consider the following unlikely, 12/21/12 or not. However, in virtually any scenario in which: A) the world ends, and B) my words outlast me, to…

  • Baxil sighting opportunity

    Just as a heads-up, I will be attending RainFurrest this coming weekend! It's rare for me to go to cons outside of northern California owing to…

  • way to go, spammers

    Due to a relentless beating of commentspam over the last several weeks (now up to about 10 per day), I've finally disabled anonymous commenting on my…