What irks the guy in charge of D&D Next? Below, Mike Mearls, who is the senior manager of the D&D R&D team, vents a little about dead weight at the gaming table and puts in a good word for all those “little details and mannerisms” that make roleplaying fun.
Mike Mearls was a lead developer on 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and is now the senior manager of the D&D Next team. Mearls co-wrote the 4E Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 with Greg Gorden and Robin D. Laws. He also wrote Mastering Iron Heroes, the game master’s guide to Malhovoc Press’s variant rules for heroic combat. Today, though, Mearls looks back to his early days of AD&D . . . and silent boulders.
Today we’re going to talk about boss battles in your tabletop games, including how you can borrow a few ideas from Diablo 3 and other titles as well. Making these climactic encounters a true apex to your adventures is crucial, and they are loads of fun to dream up. Remember, folks, D&D invented the “boss battle.” So let’s jump right in!
Phases of Combat: Changing Strengths and Weaknesses
A common idea in video games during boss battles is the concept of phases. The most recognizable formula for phases is that once the creature has reached a certain threshold of hit points or been in combat for X amount of time, the creature goes into “berserk” mode and starts doing double, triple, and even quadruple damage.
Some bosses morph into entirely different creatures, or they might spend half the battle in one “mode” and the rest in another. The mode might mean that the boss can be damaged only in a certain way, in a certain spot, or by a specific source. Perhaps the boss is so big that it starts underground and you’re attacking only its head until it fully unearths itself. It might all seem hokey when you just skim over the thought of it, but you’ll find a lot of opportunities for challenging combat here.
The trap is a D&D icon. Classic dungeons such as Tomb of Horrors and The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan are famous for their mechanical ambushes. Traps are so central to the concept of dungeons that an entire class—the thief—was developed to deal with them (along with locked doors).
In real life, of course, archaeologists have never had to deal with this abundance of traps in ancient tombs and ruins. No trap of any kind has been found in an excavation: no scything blades, no darts with pressure-plate triggers, not even poisoned needles in treasure chests. Sliding blocks have been used to seal passages but never to squash intruders. Deep pits were dug in the entrance corridors of some tombs, but they were meant only as obstacles. The pits weren’t covered, so only the most irresponsible of thieves risked falling in, and none of them left behind skeletons with broken legs. Tomb architects went to great lengths to keep people out, but no thought was given to killing them once they got in.
Demons and devils occupy an odd position in the pantheons of most fantasy RPGs. For the most part, those terms are just two more names in a long list of monster classifications, not much different from fairies or talking animals. They’ve been stripped of their terrifying spiritual implications.
That’s a shame, because their unholy aspects are what make demons and devils so fascinating in our collective, churning imagination. Reducing them to scaly super villains deprives our fantasy campaigns of some fascinating potential. Sadly, the same affliction cripples most RPG “gods,” who are diminished to the status of remote, somewhat apathetic super heroes.
D&D’s cosmology throws more oil on the hellfire by pitting devils and demons against each other instead of uniting them in a mutual war against Heaven.