Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Are Your Boss Fights Boss Enough?

When I wrote this in 2012, I mentioned that I should write something on "non-traditional combat structures." It's high time I delivered.

Fighting the Evil Fight

I feel roleplaying games have done the notion of the "final boss" fight a disservice.

I mean, take a look at the traditional heroic fiction. Usually when James Bond goes up against a man with his finger casually and languidly stroking The Button You Don't Want Pressed, the titular character has to chew his way through at least a metaphorical army, sometimes a literal one.

And fantasy fiction final fights can be even more stacked against the hero. Sure it may end up being a one-on-one fight, but that sun-kissed long blonde hair and six feet of rippling muscles have to face down something that's forty feet tall, scaly, and wickedly taloned. And that assumes it doesn't have its own army too. Which, often, it does.

Even video games got it more right than RPGs. How bad is that?

You've seen it in games stretching back as far as the 1980s; you'd fight your way through an army ultimately to confront some bloated digital horror that fills half the screen and is throwing more bullets at you than most Fellini films had extras. And that's assuming that bloated digital horror didn't spawn more units of the type you fought to get there. So not only is the final boss trying to shoot you, it's also crapping out its own army to shoot you as well.

I mean, it's just not fair!

And that's kind of the point here.

"Level Appropriate" means the PCs can still take him.

Meanwhile, if certain RPGs had their way, the PCs would fight their way through a few encounters with less of an army and more a few squadrons of goons in order to face a situation that, well, they can handle. They can't be heroic if they don't win, and it's not exciting if there isn't a chance of them losing, so the final boss is kind of tough... -ish.

And while it's structurally solid and allows for fiction well within the gamut of possibility, when you take a step or two back and squint your eyes a little, it gets dull. Dull as dishwater, and not even used dishwater at that. Warm water, soap, froth a bit... done.

How did it come to this?

Simplicity and a need for balance, mostly. It's a well-considered yet hard-and-fast rule for creating a series of encounters of increasing difficulty with which to challenge the characters and thrill the players.

Like I said, there's nothing particularly wrong with the approach, but use it a few times and it won't exactly feel right either. Once you ride that train a few times, the scenery may change but the course remains unerringly constant. Predictably constant. Boringly constant.

And along with everything else, I hate being predictable.

It's time to change things up.

Why These New Combat Structures Need to be "Non-Traditional"

You want to change up that final knock-down drag-out combat with the man or creature running (or ruining) the show? Yeah, you can make him more skilled, so he hits more often. And you can make him stronger, so he hits harder. And you can armor him up and give him more hit points so he can soak up more abuse. And you can give him new powers to make him unpredictable and give him new things to hit the PCs with.

Yeah, that'll make things different.

It'll also make things untenable, because you buff him up enough and suddenly the PCs can't hope to take him. He becomes level-inappropriate, and that usually results in tears and shredded character sheets.

So how do the PCs fight a baddie that they can't deal with? By some means other than fighting. Yes, it'll involve opposing him, but if you can't take him in a direct fight, then don't fight directly.

And if you're the GM of this particular fight, make it clear that a direct confrontation is a quick and easy recipe for a TPK. And then, however you work your magic, provide an avenue of attack by indirect confrontation.

A Brief Tour of Other Conflict Resolution Mechanics

Now, I don't know what you're playing, so I can't tell you specifically for your system. But I can point to the ways a few other games do this and make things exciting. With a little elbow grease and number-crunching, it should be possible to adapt these techniques to your game of choice.

Explore the Possibilities

One of the great stand-outs in my memory is TORG, which had a task resolution mechanic baked into its Drama Deck: The Dramatic Skill Resolution System.

The idea behind it was that making a single roll to do something of great dramatic significance was boring and anti-climactic. So the challenge was broken up into three or (usually) four parts and each had to be done in order. Each card flipped on the Drama Deck determined, among other things, initiative, approved actions (which would get players cards), and which steps of the DSR could be done that round.

Say the current flip showed that you could do parts A and C, for instance. If you were just starting, you could roll for A. If you had already done A and B, you could do C. But if you'd done A, or done up through C already, you couldn't do B or D, yet.

Other things could come up instead of approved tasks, like Possible Setback, indicating that work could come undone or the difficulty of the remaining tasks would increase, or you'd have less time to finish the job. And so on.

Another of the Reasons I Like Fate

Fate lists three different dramatic tension mechanics, of which direct combat ("conflict") is only one.

Another is the "Contest." This is the resolution mechanic you'd use if there were two directly opposing forces, like in a tug-of-war, a foot-race, or some other zero-sum game: Where one wins, the other has to lose. In that case, you'd roll several times on the same skill representing little chunks of effort (micro-effort?), and whoever got the most successes first won the contest.

The third way is the "Challenge." This is a much more complex situation where the player characters (it's almost always the PCs navigating one of these) have to bring several different skills or abilities to bear. It might involve, for example, Lore to find the best approach among the floor plans available, Stealth to get into the place unnoticed, and Burglary to actually get into the place, ifyaknowwhatimean. This represents a macro-effort, where each skill used represents the overall effort of a given type put into the project.

Now, it's in the nature of Fate that even if you fail at one part of a Challenge, you might still succeed at the overall goal; any given failed roll can be declared a "Success at Great Cost." But in the process of getting through the big challenge, you'll end up with new, smaller problems that have to be seen to individually. Possibly using one of those other two mechanics.

Buckle up, kids—I'm going there.

Thinking about the variety-of-skills approach of Fate's mechanics, I am reminded of another example from a fairly recent game.

Dungeons & Dragons.

Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

No, seriously. Stop laughing, you insensitive bastards!

Written into the D&D 4e DMG was a reminiscent mechanic, called the Skill Challenge. In one of these, you would have a list of appropriate skills, and a number of successes you had to achieve to win, and a number of failures (usually 1/2 the number of successes) before the challenge failed.

And 5e ...does not have that mechanic. I'm not totally surprised by this; there was a massive push to strip out from D&D the things that made it feel overtly mechanical, and I'll admit that the Skill Challenge did contribute at least a little bit of that metallic twang. Still, it's a darned useful mechanic when you want to model a complicated process which could go either way.

Although... 5e does have something vaguely reminiscent of Fate's "Contest." It's used solely for chases, though. Strip out the chase-specific stuff, substitute different attributes or skills, and it might serve well in other capacities.

Back to the Boss

That's how some different systems use different mechanics to manage various non-combat tasks. Clearly, what we need to do next is make these dovetail into combat.

Cutting The Other Guy Down to Size

So, let's take the case of the clearly superior boss. Engaging him in a direct fight would be suicide because he's got ...something. Magical protection, let's say.

Why, your best fighter could take him if he weren't so guarded. And that should suggest an avenue of attack. The mage could be wearing down those magical defenses, but only if some of the other fighters in the group engage the boss's cultist soldiers and keep them away from the mage. And the fighter that ultimately has to deal with him has to be down there distracting him so the boss doesn't come up and splat the mage.

See how that all fits together? You have some of the group protecting the mage who's beating down the boss's defenses so the guy down there distracting him can ultimately take him out. And while it's not technically directly fighting the boss, it's more like a boss fight. And it's a pretty boss fight at that.

But what if he's too big to cut down?

Say the boss doesn't have an army defending him, or you've taken most of them out. He's so big that mortar shells just kind of bounce off of him. Yeah, we're talking someone here who could go toe-to-toe with Godzilla™. (Note: If your Trail of Cthulhu game gets to this point, I want to hear about it.) And I don't think I need to say it at this point, but I will: Your group can't attack him directly.

But this "fight"—okay, it's not so much a "fight" as a "one-sided city stomp"—has been going on for a while, and there's a good bit of rubble around. You have the asteroid chunk that ultimately made him, and you're absolutely positive it could send him back where he came from, but the thing's six feet across and weighs a quarter ton! You have no way of throwing it hard enough to hit him with it, much less hurt him.

Or do you?

That collapsed smokestack over there could kind of resemble the barrel of a gun. The asteroid chunk would fit it, but you have to truck it into position first. And then you need propellant, like say that nearly-empty tanker rig over there. And once you have your makeshift kaiju-gun loaded and primed, you can't simply aim that thing. You're going to have to get the monster's attention and lead him into the line of fire.

It's not directly fighting the boss, but each success contributes to the ultimate success, and once you've succeeded at all the parts you have to, you win. Again, not direct combat, but played right it'd still be damn thrilling.

Hirelings! Hirelings Everywhere!

Now picture the case where there's no reason you couldn't take out the boss in a fair fight. It's just that ...any attempt to make it a fair fight will get you porcupined full of arrows, bullets, or other projectiles. Dealing with him successfully becomes less a matter of combat and more one of stealth and tactics. Or by blowing everything up and scrambling for an opportunity to take the boss out in the ensuing chaos. (Diamonds are Forever used the latter approach.)

One Last Caveat...

Above, I'd pointed out various mechanics that will help you build non-standard combat structures, and listed off some examples that can be fitted to most games. However, there's one aspect that I absolutely can't predict. It's so chaotic that even on a case-by-case basis, it can be hard to predict how it will unfold.

It's your players.


If you've fed them a steady stream of conventional combat encounters, they may not be prepared for the changes that the techniques above represent. They themselves might think "hey, every other boss has been a pushover; how bad could this one be?" Or they might think the fight is hopeless and have their characters wade in anyway because it'd be "dramatically appropriate." Or they might be looking for a way to win the fight, but they just can't wrap their heads around the cues and hints you've provided to how they can actually win.

It's not that their stupid. They may just be a little slow, or have their own ideas how such a non-fight should play out. Or they might just be playing intentionally obtuse or contrarian to force a change in your plans.

It might be a simple "training issue," getting them accustomed to a new plot structure, or it might involve talking to them. Or if they're really desperate to throw their characters away when things get tough, you'll either need to play a softer game or get a bigger trash can.

How you handle those is up to you. They're your players, after all. You know them better than I do.

1 comment:

  1. Our DM used the skill challenges in 5E, nearly as is (maybe he had read this article) & it always went really smoothly.
    Thanks for reminding me to use them as a final Encounter building tool.
    I might need it from lvl1 on... (Our Favorite trick always was to have our fighter disarm the enemy mage and put his staff into our bag of Holding immediately...)