Let me preface this by saying that we are right on the edge of Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords. So, if you want to avoid some spoilers for that Adventure Path, then you should stop right here!
Our party heads in the portal where they anticipate they will square off against the Runelord of Greed, Karzoug! Instantly, they see that their intuition is correct; Karzoug is here along with several minions. That is, if you can call a dragon, rune giant, and two storm giants ‘minions’ to begin with.
It’s no surprise that Karzoug was expecting them. Between his illusory images and scrying through the Sihedron medallions, he has had plenty of time to prepare. He knows their tactics, and he’s powerful enough to exploit their weaknesses. Plus, he has a nice little speech prepared to throw the party off their game.
Fyn, the resident wizard, has engaged in some time-stopping shenanigans in the past. The party knows how powerful such spells can be. So, when Karzoug opens up with some time magic of his own, they begin to sweat. The buffs go up around the Runelord!
There’s a lot of distance to close between the two sets of combatants. One of the issues with this party is that they tend to favor close-quarters combat. Fyn and Krask can do some damage at range, but apart from that it’s all swords and spears. Well, they haven’t really seen what El-Hadeen can do yet…
Despite their buffs, the party still feels ill-equipped to handle all of these threats at the same time. Fyn starts to tip the scales by summoning some bone devils that can create ice walls to control the battlefield. This cuts off the rune giant, which is probably the biggest melee threat.
The other two giants converge down on the party while the dragon approaches from the sky, breathing electricity from his ferocious maw. It’s a battle on three fronts, and it’s shaping up to be quite the challenge!
Without going into the play-by-play for the entire battle, I want to talk about final battles or boss battles at your tables.
These moments are pivotal! Especially when you’re talking about a campaign that’s latest for months or years. Everything has been building to the final encounter, and as a Gamemaster, you don’t want to disappoint.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to final battles. On one hand, you don’t want the fight to be too easy. It can be unsatisfying if the boss doesn’t live up to the hype. Think about squaring off against one of the most powerful wizards in history, and he goes down in a couple rounds.
On the other hand, you really want to avoid killing the entire party (TPK) if you can avoid it. I’d chalk that up as a worst-case scenario, because then what happens? Are you really going to bring a fresh batch of characters into the story who somehow track down the villain just for a single combat? It’s like having your star player rack up all the points and then having a backup take all the credit. By the way…BUCKS IN SIX!
Therefore, as GMs we are left with toeing the line between making the encounter too hard and too easy. We need to take a page from Goldilocks and the three bears and somehow make it just right!
I’ve found that there are three things that make a boss battle memorable:
- Dynamic Battlefield
- Mix of Enemy Tactics
- Awesome Speech
There’s a time and place for fighting on an open football field, but the final battle of a campaign is not it. Open fields don’t do much for the party in terms of tactics. When you have an interesting battlefield, the party has to make choices about what they’re doing. Instead of moving forty feet forward, now they have to decide if they’re going to rune alongside the lava or climb up a hill to get a better vantage point.
You can accomplish this in a variety of ways. You can use terrain to your advantage, or even build it into the enemies. What I mean by that, is you can use enemies that can be at varied elevations. It challenges certain members of the party to focus on those enemies, while the rest can focus on the threats on the ground.
In this case, we’re using a dragon to provide elevation depth, while the giants press the fight on the same level as the floor. There are also stairs and platforms surrounded by fire, which means that the players have to be very intentional about where they end their movement.
Mix of Enemy Tactics
Everybody running up to each other and conducting full-round attack actions gets a bit stale if its done for more than a round or two. It also prevents the dynamics of the battlefield to shine through, because everyone is mostly standing still. Now, you don’t want to take that away from any martial characters who love to do that, but by adding in more enemies you can still have that melee action.
I’ve found that adding in a mix of spellcasters and melee characters creates a few fronts that the party has to manage. Usually the melee fighters block off the spellcaster, who tends to be a bit squishier. You certainly want them to get off as many spells as possible!
Have some enemies hang back, while others press forward. Fire arrows from afar. Whip some spells. Pull off a section of pillar and throw it at the party. Make them feel like the heroes they are!
The final battle wouldn’t be complete without an awesome speech! I like to suspend belief for a few moments, because it’s fairly unlikely that the party would just stand there while their nemesis goes off on a long diatribe. I mean, they do it in movies all the time, right?
Your speech should fit the character that’s giving it. How do they perceive the party? What are their goals? Why are they doing what they’re doing? You don’t have to spell out the motivations explicitly, because those are probably clear at this point in the campaign. But you can use this as an opportunity to get out some exposition and story beats that the party may not have realized.
To tie it all up, have some one-liners and zingers that you can throw out during the combat to keep the players engaged. Once you start doing things like that, the party will probably have some insults and mockery to throw right back at you. Just don’t take it personally.
Final boss battles are epic and, ahead of an epilogue, are likely going to be one of the most memorable parts of the campaign. It’s the finish line, and you want to leave it all out on the field.
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