Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is one of the most elegant versions of the long-running tabletop RPG. However, there is one element that a lot of Dungeon Masters struggle with…making a final boss engaging for the players. This isn’t because the bosses in the Monster Manual are bad, it’s just that the game is structured very differently from previous iterations.
No longer are bosses primarily designed to take on a whole party entirely by themselves. Very few of the monsters in the Monster Manual can do this. A few examples include a Kraken, an Empyrean and any of the ancient dragons.
But if you were to pit just one evil mage against a party of Level 5 characters your BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) is going down in a quick, boring, anticlimactic final fight.
How do we fix this? Fortunately, the core mechanics provide some creative ways for manipulating a final boss encounter.
Never Let Them Fight Alone
A final boss should quite reasonably have some bodyguards or at least minions at his side. A party of Level 5 characters might easily gang up on a single green hag, but they won’t be able to focus fire once you add in four or five ghouls.
They might be able to kill a mage with one or two blows, but they won’t be able to he has half a dozen acolytes to keep the heroes busy.
Even a dragon can benefit from this concept. Perhaps the adult red dragon has a band of wyrmlings along with her. This can split the party’s attention and easily break their combat tactics.
Suddenly the one fighter with a Dragon Slayer sword becomes far too valuable to just let him rush in and swing his blade around. Even Strahd, vampire lord and final boss of the Curse of Strahd campaign, does not engage the party on his own.
A somewhat weak boss can suddenly become a threat when he is paired with four or five minions, especially if they can occupy the party while he focuses on spells or long-ranged weapon attacks. A mage with three bandits can lead to a total party kill since the team will get blasted repeatedly as they try to drive through the bandit guards.
Drain the Party
Medium-difficulty bosses won’t pose much of a threat to players who have really mastered Dungeons & Dragons. But you can make the fight more desperate if you wear the party out before they reach the big baddie. You can do this in a significant number of ways.
The simplest manner is to let the party take a long rest then in the room right before the BBEG, throw in a difficult encounter. They’ll spend some spell slots and use up some of their consummable items (healing potions and the like). They might not be able to heal back up to full hit points before the big boss. Now what could have been a cakewalk is a bit more of a struggle just to stay on even ground.
A big fight before the bigger fights isn’t the only way to soften up the PCs before they reach your boss monster. You can use the Exhaustion penalties found on pg. 291 of the Player’s Handbook, or the Madness penalties on pg. 258 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. You can hit them with some of the poisons found on pg. 256-257 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide as well. All of these will put the party at a disadvantage during the fight, giving your final boss the upper hand for a round or two. That’s all it takes to make the fight interesting.
Using Cover and the Terrain
It’s very rare for a final boss room to be an empty square. Add some big boulders, pillars, furniture and other terrain features.
Fantastic terrain can lead to some very interesting encounters. Terrain can even the odds when the party is facing a boss that is too strong for them on paper. Give them some cover and they can hang in the fight longer.
The same can work for your boss – he and his minions can gain the upper hand with some judicious use of cover. Maybe they have the high ground (sorry Anakin, too soon?) on a slippery, icy slope so now the party also has to deal with difficult terrain.
Perhaps the boss and his team are pretty weak, but the party has to scale up a wall just to reach them. As they climb up, the enemies continually rain damage down on the heroes with a pair of ballistas or boiling oil. Suddenly the weak final boss has turned into a major obstacle.
Difficult terrain, blizzards, sandstorms, limited visibility and a mismatch of cover can quickly turn the tides of battle. If you really want to create an interesting scenario, raise the stakes a bit. For example, what if the cover the team is using is made up of dragon eggs? Would the boss still risk using its wide area breath attack?
Other than guards and minions, another interesting means of making a final boss more engaging is to stage the fight with proactive traps. These aren’t the kind of traps that simply require a quick Perception check to spot, and then a Rogue to study and disarm. These are the kinds of traps that the party can easily see but cannot easily disarm…either due to a puzzle, lack of time during the fight or unique disarming mechanics.
Here are a couple of examples to get your mind working:
A party of Level 1 characters is up against a single Goblin Boss and his two Goblin allies. Those enemies should go down pretty quickly.
However, if the whole room is slowly filling up with poisonous gas that changes things. The gas won’t stop coming until the party realizes the switch is at the very entrance of the area, which means they’ll need to waste time and backtrack a few feet just to shut it off. They’re most likely poisoned at this point and will have disadvantage when attacking the boss and his minions, suddenly turning this into a very deadly encounter.
Or how about this mix of a trap and a Gelatinous Cube. When the party enters the dungeon chamber, the doors suddenly shut tight. They see a door on the opposite end of the room, but in order to open it they need a very special kind of key. In comes a Gelatinous Cube with three different items inside. One of those items is the key for the door. If they retrieve the wrong item and insert it into the door the room sprays petrifying gas. The only way to know which item is the right one is to decipher a riddle given at the entrance of the dungeon.
Make the Final Boss Ever Present
Strahd is a great example of an active final boss. All throughout the Curse of Strahd campaign he doesn’t just sit in his castle doing nothing. He is always taunting the party. His presence is always felt. A really engaging final boss is one the party has encountered throughout the campaign, but either didn’t have the chance to confront in battle, or they weren’t strong enough to defeat him early on.
Another fun option is to have the boss’ magical weapon stored in a sealed room. The party can choose to do the optional side-quest to get the keys necessary to get the weapon. Or they can choose to ignore it and conserve their resources. If they do the latter then the final encounter becomes more challenging as the boss is fully armed with his treasured weapon.
Not only does this give an evolving dynamic to the dungeon and its boss, but it also lets the players know that their choices in the game matter. Bosses should be living, breathing entities (unless they are undead of course) with their own goals and motivations. Let your party interact with them throughout the campaign, but make it on your terms. Always give them a way of escape until that final epic confrontation.
(images use with permission from Claudio Cassini Art)