So just before Christmas we wrapped up the Red Hand of Doom with an epic 10 hour session. The party had the help of a Bronze Dragon that they’d somehow managed to extract and ressurect in a cave outside of the last dungeon.
The battle with the high priest of Tiamat was tough because I wasn’t pulling punches and there were respawning minions. Unhallow effects also didn’t help make it easier. Basically a slightly stacked deck. However they prevailed and then fought an Aspect of Tiamat. This is basically the weakened Tiamat from the ‘Rise of the Tiamat’ adventure which makes her supposedly CR15. However the PCs had a dragon with them plus a bonus dragon from a boon of Bahamut that they had earned. This enabled them to put some consistent damage on the aspect.
Additionally I made sure to telegraph the Aspects breath weapons (“she’s inhaling…”) because while rolling 16d6 for a breath weapon is fun, a TPK that the party can’t stop *isn’t*. I was essentially thinking of ‘MMO Raid’ for this encounter. That included cheats like ‘health gating’ – so there were triggered events at 50% and 25% and 10% HP. The last of which was a ‘wipe mechanic’ (her flame breath which would probably KO or Kill 3 of the party). Despite some hairy moments the party prevailed, banishing the aspect back to hell.
Firstly ‘cool trumps rules’. This isn’t to say let players away with taking the piss and trying to invent unreasonable advantages for themselves, but that if they do something imaginative and consistent within the rules of the system then it should have a reasonable shot of working if it promulgates the story.
Second 5E boss fights using standard rules as written suck. Simply put that 4 characters have multiple attacks, items and bonus actions. That could be 12 distinct rolls or effects or attacks. Few monsters get that within a round. Tiamat has multiple reactions and legendary actions which makes her a bit more challenging but she’s a deity. Most bosses in 5E aren’t quite that advanced. Both of these points have made me think of other ways to resolve combat and vanquish foes.
So to this end recently I’ve been stealing ideas from looter-shooters like Borderlands 2 and Destiny 2. Both of them are similar to TTRPGS (kill stuff, get XPs & get loots!) and are clearly influenced by traditional RPGs as well as MMOGs. While many people wanted to get away from 4th edition’s ‘computer game’ style mechanics, from a DMs point of view 4E was a lot easier to run with a lot of nice overlapping and interactive rules. There were 1hp minions, mobile flanking skirmishers, HP slab brutes, ambushing lurkers, debuffing and manipulative controllers, long range damaging artillery and slightly stronger and tougher soldiers.
With that in mind concepts such as powerful bosses having ‘wipe mechanics’ (or in the case of D&D just mass AOE damage), limited periods when they could be damaged (DPS Phase) as well as waves of minions (‘Adds’). However this isn’t suitable for most medium sized humanoid foes at low level. Often they just have regular class abilities or the like and it’s not until the PCs are facing much more deadly foes that you can implement these sorts of mechanics.
A lot of these are very 4E in their approach. Many good 4E encounters combined a difficult (or impossible!) combat with a skill challenge (puzzle or ritual to solve) which would render the combat a bit more manageable. Don’t be afraid to look at older 4E resources and steal/borrow/adapt them for your game!
Use Seige Equipment – as outlined above, PCs must fight and capture seige equipment to turn it on a more powerful foe that they couldn’t hope to defeat normally. Examples would be using ballista to injure a dragon, or trebuchets to destroy seige towers.
Disrupt the Ritual – a monster coming through a portal. By smashing the focus stones or killing the ritual chanting cultists the portal weakens and this also damages or weakens the monster to the point where it becomes a fair fight.
‘DPS Phase’ – The PCs must survive the monsters attack for a couple of rounds which then exhausts it or it needs to recharge or similar. This provides opportunities for the PCs to inflict damage without fear of its fatal attacks being used on them. Obviously if the PCs get greedy and try to press their attack, the creatures attack will recharge and they will not hesitate to turn it on the over-eager PCs. Don’t forget to summon in low-level minions to keep the pressure on and to telegraph the ‘wipe’ attack before it happens.
Bait & Banish – The monster is all but invincible (but very stupid!) The PCs need to lure it onto specific locations (magic circles, trap triggers or similar) in order to render it vulnerable or to allow the traps to inflict damage. To make it more difficult the locations could be depleted or destroyed once the monster has taken it’s damage. Of course as the creature takes damage it gets more angry and the monsters minions could accidentally trigger the traps, using them up.
Air Strike – This is similar to the endgame plot of Out of the Abyss. Basically a beacon/trap/bomb or artefact or similar is planted in the enemy’s lair which then calls down whatever fire/monster/wrath of the gods to weaken the enemy.
In closing – just remember that typical initiative and combat isn’t the only way to defeat enemies. Often unique enemies require unique solutions!