Monday, June 2, 2014

Boss Mechanics from World of Warcraft

Inspired by the respective posts of +Brendan S and +Gus L.  Boss mechanics are cool, y'know?  Special monsters should have special rules, or special win conditions.

what a sweet hat

So I played World of Warcraft for a while.  A huge chunk of the game revolves around big, scripted boss fights with interesting mechanics.

Nearly all of these boss fights would be pretty shitty if you ported them to to a tabletop RPG.  (Although some of the mobile, grid-based stuff might be fun in 4e.)

However, there are a ton of boss mechanics in the game, and once you cull all the inappropriate ones (safety dance, reflex-based stuff), there are still some that can be useful.  I've tried to articulate them below in a system-neutral way.

One word of caution.  WoW is all about getting a group to pull of a certain strategy perfectly, which is fine because you can attempt a boss fight as many times as you want.  That's not what D&D is good at.  Don't hang the entire encounter on a single hook.  Give players multiple ways to defeat a boss, and leave room for clever strategies and thinking outside the box.  Because that's where D&D really excels.

Running Battle
Zones of AoE prevent you from fighting in the same place for very long.  Combat usually becomes a running battle as the monster chases you around the dungeon (preferably back towards the entrance, but being chased deeper is a hilarious way to fuck up).

The Eater of Hours is a twisted, slug-like abomination that crawls through the black tunnels beneath the Tree of Time, where it gnaws on its roots.  Each turn and in addition to its normal attacks, the Eater regurgitates a pustule of deliquescent filth, which will immediately begin to dissolve into a cloud of acidic vapors.  Beginning the next turn and continuing for 10 turns, the lump of filth does ongoing acid damage to everything in the room.  The party could also conceivably find a way to protect themselves from acid, or find a way to neutralize the lump of acid-filth before it begins releasing gases.

There is a rumor of a dungeon called the Tomb of Sithrak.  There is a powerful curse upon it.  Once a spell has been cast in a room, no further spells may be cast in that room until the next full moon.

is facelessness more menacing than glowy red eys?  yes
Kill the Healers First
The bad guys heal.  Killing the healer first helps the whole fight go smoother. 

Volkenrath the Soul Breaker is an immense demon.  Chained to his body is a retinue of the enslaved cultists who once thought they could control him.  They have been compelled to heal him at the expense of all things.  During combat, Volkenrath will drag the 4 cultists behind him while they feverishly heal his wounds and dispel harmful spells.

Necomancer Mung stands in his chariot, surrounded by his skeletal battalion.  He possesses a magic item that allows him to reassemble all defeated skeletons with a single spell (limitless uses).  Whenever he feels like his losses have been too heavy, he'll raise his all his fallen skeletons.

The high priority target doesn't have to be a healer either.  I ran one game where the PCs learned really quickly to kill the wrinkly dudes first, because they had half as much HP as the other cultists and their laser backpacks could do enough damage to kill an unlucky PC in one hit.

drow barbie
Separate the Twins
Enemies are much more deadly together than when they're apart.

Before the Elf-King's castle fell to ruin, the Two Tarantella Golems led courtly dances while playing lively music from their orchestral innards.  Separated, their music is slow and uncoordinated.  However, when playing together their music joins into a frenzied crescendo, and they fight with much more coordination and strength. As long as the two golems can hear each other playing, they get twice as many attacks per round.  Interposing doors and walls can block the sound, as can the silence spell.

The Blonkrieg Berserkers are a pair of twin brothers, the half-sons of the viking god.  It has been prophecied that they will never fall is battle as long as they fight beside each other.  They stick together at all times, but when the battle-lust overtakes them, they can be lured apart easily.  All damage that a Blonkrieg takes is reduced by 10.  However, that number (10) is reduced by 1 for every 10' between them.  Beyond 100', their power is nullified.

I give up.  It's hard to find good Warcraft art.  Have a godzilla.
Stop the Runners
You need to prevent some creatures from reaching some location, or else something bad will happen.

The party already saw what happened when one goblin jumped into a mutation vat.  Now there are four goblins who are each sprinting for a different mutation vat in a different corner of the room.

Ozrukh the Orb Lord flies above the Pit of MacGuffin.  He's cast a powerful enchantment on the nearby village, and now mind-controlled townsfolk are stumbling toward the Pit like zombies.  Each blank-faced farmer that throws themselves into the pit empowers Ozrukh, healing him and granting him +1 to hit and damage (stacking).  PCs will have to split their actions between (a) stopping villagers from throwing themselves into the pit (and deciding if its worth it to try to keep them alive), (b) trying to barricade the entrances, and (c) Ozrukh himself, who will attempt to knock PCs into the Pit.  Ignoring the villagers and focusing on Ozrukh is totally possible, but riskier.

tell me a story
Bringing Item to Location
When you bring X to Y, good things happen.

Garglegaunt is some sort of ghoul-troll-mindflayer hybrid.  He's pretty fucked up.  If his heart is damaged it will fall out of his rotting chest cavity.  It's not the only way to kill him, but if the heart is then thrown into one of the braziers, his whole body will burst into flame (which also disables his regeneration).  At least, that's what the sage said.  Thieves might also have a chance to steal his heart right out of his chest at an earlier point, when he's still busy monologuing.

When thieves stole books from the Library of Longlai and fled through the sewers, they didn't think that the books were enchanted.  The stories leapt out from the pages of the books and slew the thieves.  The PCs have been given the quest of returning the four missing tomes, which are each located in different parts of the sewers.  The books' guardians wander the sewers, too.  Although it's possible to kill them the traditional way, returning the books to the library will cause the The Paper Tiger, The Heron and the Torchbearer, The Nine Princesses, and The Hungry Giant to lie dormant once again.

Killable Only at a Certain Location or in a Certain Way
What is says on the tin.

The Slouching Beast can be slowed, and even stopped temporarily.  But with its unlimited regeneration and other total bullshit powers, it will pursue the PCs implacably.  It can only be killed where it was born: atop the Yoni Stone on level 2.

Magistrate Vool has been blessed by his patron, the god of hedonism.  He can only be killed in two ways: from the act of eating, or from the act of fucking.  While poisoning the dude is probably easier, PCs could also conjure a succubus and bargain her into this deed.  It's easier than it sounds--the magistrate conjures succubi all the time.  Everything you need is in his subterranean orgy room (pillows on all surfaces), hidden beneath the opium den.

why can't WoW be more like this
I wanna be a naked dude stabbing a sad-face jellybean man with a spear
Mass Chaos
Confuse everyone for a few rounds.  Chaos ensues.

Amun-pan-pulio, high priestess of the Spiraling Chaos, knows a spell called mass chaos.  She is fond of casting it at the beginning of combat.  Everyone in the room (including herself and her boyfriend) who fails a save is overcome as if with confusion for 3 rounds.  Usually this devolves into everyone stabbing each other wildly and at random.  It's not completely moronic, since the greater number of PCs compared to cultists means that they're more likely to be chosen (at random) as targets.  (Still a giant crapshoot, though.  But hey, that's chaos for you.)

Sometimes the best bosses are a group like the PCs.

The "boss" of this dungeon isn't in a keyed room.  It's on the random encounter table.  There's a rival group of drow adventurers and they are the most cunning jerks you'll ever meet.  They lie as easily as they breathe, and backstab more often than they shake hands.

The giant man propped his longbow against the wall and introduced himself and Randoolf.  His companions are "men of the roads and forests", and they have recently come into possession of a map that leads to a dungeon in the middle of the woods.  They'll sell it to the party for a reasonable price and then bid farewell.  When the PCs trek to the dungeon, they may or may not notice the trio of dead adventurers in the nearby ditch, stripped of their goods and full of arrow holes.  As they exit the dungeon, tired and possibly weighed down with loot, Randoolf and his fellow bandits will attack from the trees.  It's the perfect scam.

The enemy has a single-minded fixation on killing a certain opponent.

Part of reconsecrating the Temple of Pearls involves baptizing one of the PCs in the baptismal font.  This PC will then perform the reconsecration ceremony.  Immediately after the baptism, the corrupting spirit will manifest as a clawed tar-ghost.  This creature will pursue the baptized PC while utterly ignoring everything else.  This could be run as an environmental challenge, climbing on stuff and closing doors, or it could be run as a chase scene that only ends when the tar-ghost is defeated.

Stheriax the red dragon failed in his attempt to become a draco-lich.  It successfully created a phylactery, but its mind rotted like maggot-eaten meat.  It's barely smart enough to pursue whoever has its phylactery, but it will do that at the expense of all else.  Since the PCs are trapped in an arena with it, they may want to play keep-away with it.  Stheriax will swallow the phylactery if he can.  While in his stomach, the phylactery gives the zombie dragon regeneration, but it can be cut out of the dragon's belly if someone is swallowed, or if someone can get beneath it and slice its guts open.  (Watch out for tapeworms.)

Painful choices
Players sometimes grumble about getting stunned or silenced, since it takes away their choices for several turns.  Well, you can address that issue and introduce more tactical options by replacing stun, immobilize, silence, or pacifism effects with painful choices.  Let players choose between behaving as if they were stunned, etc, or ignoring the effect and taking some harmful effect.

Instead of paralysis, the Curse of the Kuo-Toa Fisherman pierces a creature's body with hundreds of fish-hooks, each anchored to a point in space.  If the creature moves, the hooks will rip out painful gobbets of flesh.  If the creature performs some action while standing in the same place, they take 1d6 damage.  If they run around (or get shoved around) they take 2d6 damage.

Instead of silencing a spellcaster, infect their brains with a spellworm.  Whenever the magic-user casts a spell, the worm devours another one of their memorized spells at random, causing them to lose it as if they had already cast it.

Instead of pacifism (attacking is impossible) let the Alabaster Angel stare at one of the PCs each round.  Whichever PC is the subject of her beauteous gaze is so enthralled, that they feel actual pain from attacking her.  Whenever a PC is the subject of her gaze and deals damage to her, they take damage equal to what they dealt.

Delayed Fireballs
There are a lot of variations of this.  Basically, just take a horrible spell or effect, make it worse, and then give PCs a turn to get out of the way.  A 5d6 fireball becomes a 10d6 fireball that hovers in the air for a turn before exploding.  A sleep spell becomes a paralysis cloud that takes a full turn to coalesce.  This can be used to chase PCs from key locations (secure sniping perch, chokepoint).  This can even be used to make a strong enemy easier to defeat: after the wizard is doused in time slime, all of his spells take an extra turn to "arrive". 

Change the Rules
Nothing mixes it up better than changing the rules in the middle of a combat.  These are all pretty gimmicky and gamist, but they can be fun.
  • Damage is healing, and vice versa.
  • Cure wounds spells are inflict wounds spells, and vice versa.
  • Use Charisma instead of Strength for attack and damage rolls (since you're obviously dreaming).
  • In the Dungeon of the Humble, change each (ability score) to (21-ability score.)  18s become 3s, and vice versa.
  • In the Dungeon of Wind, every weapon is a ranged weapon (since they can "throw" their attack).
  • In the Dungeon of Friendship, the whole party shares abilities.  The wizard can swing a sword as well as the fighter, the cleric can memorize spells as well as the wizard (in addition to his clerical magic), etc.
  • All arrows deal double damage in Robin Hood's tomb.
  • One PC grows 1' taller and deals double damage while all others deal half and are likewise reduced.  This designation changes randomly, or perhaps it's just based on whoever was the last person to sit atop the Titan Throne.

Change the Combatants
It's more interesting when the tides turn during battle.  The easiest way to do this is with adds, but there are other ways.

  • When Jubilex is at half-health, it vomits out 3 black oozes, making the combat harder.
  • When Arcturus is at half-health, it catches on fire, making the combat easier.
  • The dragon's eggs hatch when you bump them.
  • The spider queen lays eggs that will hatch unless you set them on fire immediately.
  • Reinforcement zombies pull themselves out of the ground.
  • The lieutenant you killed 3 rooms back stumbles into the room, now undead.
  • Severed body parts fall off the boss and attack on their own.
  • The boss nullifies all spells within 100', but this ability is negated by a punch in the face.
  • As the archmage turns into a dragon, 3 of the prince's crossbowmen join you, and ask for orders.
  • If you untie the tied up woman and give her a sword, she'll join you.  She's a level 5 fighter.
  • The room is flooding with sea water and vampiric seahorses.
  • Offering the starving slaves food has a 50% chance of getting them to join you.


  1. This is some great stuff!
    Thanks for writing/posting it!
    Despite all the grief it gets I still think there are some good lessons to be learned from WOW for table top games... and fun ideas to be stolen.

  2. Very inspirational, thank you.

  3. These are great. Too many boss battles are just one boss and they all smack and blast it until it runs out of hit points. Boring.

  4. Really amazing post +Arnold K. This reminds me of the AngryDM's, "Three-Stage Boss Fight" only with greater potential, since Angry was addressing 4e gameplay.
    I also played WoW for several years, and really enjoyed the instance mechanics, MOBs, and variable Boss stages / mechanics. These all provide variable ways to shake up PCs pre-conceptions of how the game works and keeps them looking for ways to overcome challenges in unconventional ways.
    I recall WotC licensing WoW as a setting(?), with stated classes, monsters, etc. I've only seen the book twice at a B&N, and thumbed through it without gleaning much info. Did they also address Boss mechanics in that work?