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Author Topic: Boss Mechanics in D&D and the OSR  (Read 174 times)


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Boss Mechanics in D&D and the OSR
« on: October 22, 2020, 07:27:27 PM »
There's Zuggtmoy sealed within the Temple of Elemental Evil, Zargon at the bottom of the Lost City, Lolth within the Demonweb Pits, Acererark at the heart of his house of death, and many more. Several modern & classic adventures end with a climactic battle against a legendary opponent (Boss). While implementation of separate game mechanics for bosses can definitely lean into the combat as sport vs. war debate, I think boss mechanics still work in an OSR paradigm as long as you're willing to risk your work creating the boss be "wasted" by being overcome without combat, such as through negotiation, evasion, or exploiting some vulnerability.

I enjoy designing boss creatures, and I'm putting together a "template" I can slap on a more standard OSR creature to turn it into a boss. With that said, some boss mechanics I've seen for D&D type games (OSR & Modern) include:

Fear (0e-2e). While inconsistent with the exact mechanics, fear effects in old-school d&d generally set a Hit Die threshold, below which creatures would flee in terror upon sight of a monster, like a lich or dragon. This prevents most henchmen from joining the player characters against a climactic foe, or if encountered by weak player characters arguably saves them from their own potential stupidity.

Inflated Defense (1e-5e). In order to allow your boss to survive longer, some inherent defense is inflated. In 1e & 2e, this is often a creature's Armor Class & Immunities (Demlich: 50 hp, AC -6 (26), Immune to almost everything). From 3e onward, the approach is more often to drastically increase a creature's hit points (Demilich: 80 hp, AC 0 (20), not as many immunities, but takes half damage from ALL magic weapons).

Legendary Resistance (5e). Rather than giving a boss a pile of immunities to obnoxious spells & conditions, bosses in 5e have an ablative resistance allowing them to automatically soak up a couple save or die effects. I have mixed feelings on legendary resistance. Even with low saving throw & high magic resistance, I like the idea that there is still a small chance a boss can be instakilled with petrification, poison, or death magic.

Legendary Actions (5e). I think this works better. Giving a single creature the option of acting multiple times in a round, to counter the action economy problem of 4~6 PCs, perhaps 8~12 henchmen too, vs. 1 big monster.

Magic Resistance (1e-2e). Often given to creatures intended to be treated as bosses, a percentage chance that spells simply fail to take effect (May be fixed or variable based off level). Seems to have similar design goal to legendary resistance, reducing the chance that a boss is immediately destroyed by the wizard's slew of save or die effects.

Paragon Creatures (Angry GM). From Angry GM's blog, the basic idea is you use the game mechanics of two creatures, but in the story of the game call it 1 creature. This handles increased durability through HP, more actions, the creature changes at 1/2 hp (when mechanically one of its components would die).

Recharge (5e, sorta 0e). A powerful ability that can be used, and then in an uncertain period of time can be used again. I actually like this better than the 1e/2e version which usually makes this a 3/day ability, as the optimal tactic as a dragon is often to spam your breath in the beginning of a fight. 0e used both. A dragon could breath 3/day, but would only do so on a 2d6 roll of 7 or more, sorta like the 5e recharge, but flavored as "monster AI."

While there's several more I'm sure any of you could list, my concept for a "Boss Template" for OSR games looks something like:
1. Boss Vitality. The Boss has Max hp/die (assuming 6 or 8 per die, not something crazy like 20). Usually ad&d creatures with hit points listed instead of hit dice already have max hp per die or inflated hp (golems, tarrasque, solar, etc.) so ignore this.
2. Boss Resistance (more than 1/2 hp). The Boss has advantage on saving throws until at 1/2 hp or less.
3. Boss Fury (1/2 hp or less). The Boss can take a 2nd turn in combat while at 1/2 hp or less. This turn, or even separate components of the turn like movement, attacks, etc. is taken at the end of a player's turn.

Then choose one of these two, depending on how much work you want to do:

4. Boss Contingency (Easier). At 1/2 hp or fewer, or maybe under some specific condition, the boss uses one of its non-damaging special abilities or items, like the druid transforms into a T-Rex, the Fighter drinks a potion of giant strength, the cleric heals themself, etc.

4. Boss Escalation (Harder). Something about the boss becomes more threatening as time passes, based in part on the current round count (Usually maxing at round 6, taken from 13th age). For example, zombie minions of the lich pour into the room: 2 on round 1, 4 on round 2, etc. (Max 12). An amazon possessed by a Type V: Marilith Demon sprouts another arm each round, gaining an additional attack. The Waves of heat generated by a furnace golem get hotter & hotter each round (Maybe 1-6 damage/round from heat & flames). Definitely requires the most creativity & work from the GM, but I find it fun.

Ya'll got your own thoughts on how you'd handle this? Should bosses even have separate rules? Useful boss mechanics I didn't include here?


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Re: Boss Mechanics in D&D and the OSR
« Reply #1 on: October 22, 2020, 08:50:15 PM »
For early-edition D&D, I would think undead immunities (paralysis and poison, sleep and charm and fear) would prevent an anticlimactic instakill.

Having the monster be immune to everything except some particular weapon is a classic of folklore, though it may be a little too railroady for many gamers.


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Re: Boss Mechanics in D&D and the OSR
« Reply #2 on: October 22, 2020, 10:42:16 PM »
That sounds like an unwieldy hodge-podge. Might be worth simplifying a bit.

I don't know anything about 5e, but old school D&D has some boss mechanics built in. You mentioned a bunch, but an awareness of their nature helps in creating suitable encounters, so here are a few specific comments. There's quite a bit of overlap with yours, but I thought it might be useful to give you my take on things I've either implemented or considered in the past.

Hit points. Giving lieutenants 6 hp/die, and bosses max hp is fairly standard, and makes it harder to one-shot them since max hp effectively doubles a creature's staying power. Another trick I've played with for rabble is to not bother with their hp. Instead, if an attack does more than their minimum hp based on their HD (e.g. 4+1 ogre = 5 hp), then make a morale check. If it fails, they're out of the fight. This is actually fairly realistic, because IRL most people go down with one hit, regardless of how badly they were actually hit. They might be injured, or even dying, but most will just be in shock, cowering, or fleeing. All it really means is they're out of the fight.

Saves. Gods save on 2+, heroes on 3+. Could make something similar for bosses. Still allows for save or dies, but makes them rare. A simple +5 to all saves would make a big difference, and scales with level. A reroll would be roughly equivalent.

Magic resistance. While it's true that it's a feature common to many high level monsters, old school D&D does insist on a naturalistic explanation -- it's a feature of a creature's type, not a feature of level or role in an adventure. Yes, you could just give it to bosses. But it's not a save, where a bonus can be passed off as just luck. Shrugging off a fireball with no damage at all is explicitly supernatural. You could justify it in a game as some kind of divine or unholy blessing, granted by a meddling god. But to sell that, you'd need interfering gods a la the Illiad, and it would help to emphasize the magical nature of the world itself, not just spells and powers. In other words, omens and destiny and all that shit. But it's worth hard consideration, because MR is a great mechanic for boss-types: It's basically a you-must-be-this-high level threshold that shakes off anything from a minor (low level) spellcaster, or an additional save on top of the save (even if there isn't a save) against more viable challenges.

Extra actions. I definitely agree the action economy is one of the hardest things to deal with in games. When you have a half dozen or more PCs against a single opponent, it tends to result in the single opponent being quickly overwhelmed, or in monsters so overpowered that PCs start dropping like flies. It's hard to find a happy medium, but the game has come up with a disparate set of mechanical solutions: High level fighters get multiple attacks. Dragons get kicks, tails, wing buffets, and so on. Beholders have pew pew pew. Spellcasters have contingencies and time stop. These solutions tend to be piecemeal and monster specific, but you could generalize the concept. But don't forget the most important action multiplier: Minions. A 7th level pirate captain might be surrounded by a couple score 0-level pirates, which flips the action economy in the other direction. Unlike some later editions like 3e which were scared of the idea, in old school games don't be afraid to mix levels or throw tons of low level creatures at the PCs. They can be a distraction, a challenge, or a chance for the PCs to show off by demonstrating how far they've come, but they prevent Lanchester's laws from being such a nuisance.

Lairs. Acererak has the Tomb of Horrors. A beholder can disintegrate a 3-dimensional maze of tunnels. Kobolds can have a nest of tunnels too small for anyone but the halflings and gnomes, and lace the larger passages with traps. A vampire has charmed slaves among the townsfolk. A dragon can have all of the above. The key here is information and using up precious resources. There's no explicit mechanic for it, and there doesn't need to be. It's just how you build scenarios and  run mastermind-type opponents.

Morale. This is a key feature of old school D&D, and one of its most important mechanics. It's why PCs are so special, and why even mindless undead like zombies and skeletons are so fearsome. If you use it all the time, it changes how the PCs approach encounters, because it's not about robotic extermination but about breaking them or driving them away. Giving a significant boost to morale, or even PC-level immunity, to lieutenants and bosses can really emphasize how different they are from the rest. Note this only works if you use morale for everything else.

Recharge. Potions, scrolls, wands with X charges, staves that can be broken for a retributive strike, items that can be used Y times a day and so on are the classic method. This allows a temporary boost of power, but is just a narrow part of the broader concept of resource management. A magic-user's spells serve a very similar purpose, or an archer's arrows. A high level fighter might have a single arrow of slaying, while at low levels there's a very big difference between an orc with 2 javelins, an an archer with a quiver of 20 arrows. Ammo matters.

AC. Armor also matters, and for NPCs and humanoids is a factor of wealth, or of who gets first dibs (the boss), not of creature type or level. Same with weapons.

Escalation. Don't treat encounters as hermetically sealed. One of the most famous 1e modules has the PCs arrive at the entrance to a dungeon filled with what is basically an army of related monsters, and then tells the DMs when exactly every other monster on the 1st level will arrive if there's a fight at the front door. This escalates the fight, and rewards PCs who don't act like bulls in a China shop. Like the lair, this doesn't require a mechanic, it should just be how you design dungeons. Have them reactive and dynamic, make them refill over time, and so on.

I've alluded to it several times, but if you really want the old school feel, a naturalistic explanation for everything is vital. Things like your version of the recharge or that legendary resistance power are antithetical to the idea (that may be why you're uncomfortable with the latter).
« Last Edit: October 22, 2020, 11:02:16 PM by Pat »