Building a Balanced Boss Fight in DND & Roleplaying

In the past, we've mentioned that building a balanced boss fight is often more about being able to improvise rather than boss mechanics. Mechanically, there's only so much you can do by crunching the numbers, especially if you run a campaign heavy on improvisation and creativity. Often, you'll find yourself needing to adjust on-the-fly -- and that's fine. The sacred pact between GM and player is that it will be fun and feel fair. And there's an emphasis on "feel."

What is a "Balanced Fight?"

In board games, balance has become a dirty word. In video games and board games, there has been a trend towards the baseline; players should feel slightly challenged but not overwhelmed. And that isn't necessarily a good thing. Feeling overwhelmed from time-to-time is not bad, especially in something that is meant to be as high intensity as D&D. In a FATE game, you should probably feel overwhelmed at least once per session.

Dragon Fight
Most of us would feel overwhelmed if we had to fight a battle in this outfit.

When we say a balanced fight in D&D, we usually mean a fight that the players can reasonably expect to win if they make the right decisions. That's hard, because making the "right" decision isn't always obvious, especially as boss fights become more complex.

Boss fights, in particular, often have either a set of interactions (the boss will take one of three actions) or act dumbly (attack the most injured first, then the second most injured, then the least most injured...). In these situations, players are really only countering DPS. Thus, they get used to purely calculating the amount of damage they can do (and the amount of healing they can acquire).

It's easy to balance a fight like this, because you only need to consider boss HP and DPS and player HP and DPS. It's harder to balance encounters that are more complex.

Balancing Out the Puzzle Fight

A puzzle fight is a fight in which the boss has certain mechanics that need to be identified before the boss can be beaten. In a simple scenario, the boss may be weak to ice magic and immune to fire magic. In a more complex scenario, the boss may need to be hit by a sequence of six spells before their wall of invulnerability goes down.

Dragon boss fight
According to copyright free stock images, the worst thing when fighting a dragon is excess clothes.

Balancing this type of fight is difficult because it relies on player knowledge as much as hero knowledge. However, there are ways to balance out such a fight, and they don't change much based on complexity.

  • Reward the player when they guess in the right direction. When a boss is weak to ice magic, they will automatically know because they will see that they are doing more damage (and, of course, you can throw in some flavor). With something more complex, such as an actual puzzle that they're facing, you need to make it clear when they're moving in the right direction. 
  • Don't forget about hero stats. It shouldn't always be necessary for the players to solve the puzzle; you can tell them that their 20 int hero notices something as well. If someone has 24 passive perception, they probably notice the button on the wall without having to search for it.
  • Try not to make it too convoluted. Complexity can be fine, but when something is convoluted, it isn't just complex; it's difficult to follow. The more complex it is, the more intuitive it has to be. Something that's convoluted may not be figured out until everyone is dead.
  • Give hints beforehand. If you do have a complex battle, give players the opportunity to figure out elements of the battle before, either by showing mechanics of the boss fight in prior fights or having them research the boss.
  • Don't pile on the damage. Keep in mind that if your players only have 5 turns to figure things out before they're dead, they have limited opportunities to acquire evidence as to what's going on.

Complex fights are the most rewarding. Trying to balance fights appropriately can often lead to watering fights down, which isn't as fun for the player or the DM. Instead, by following the above tips, you can create a complex and rewarding fight that doesn't feel unfair.

Why Do Fights Feel Unfair?

Every DM, at some point or another, has run a fight that players felt was "unfair." Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. If players charge in against a powerful monster without doing any research, that's realistically and obviously on them. But there are a few things that can feel unfair to players:

  • When they feel they have no way to figure the fight out. Players will get frustrated if they simply can't grasp the fight mechanics, and in many situations, this is when a DM may want to gently give them clues (unless they truly aren't trying). The more complex a fight is, the more feedback the player has to be given.
  • When they suspect the rolls are being tampered with. This is your reality; it's completely possible to say "this strike is unavoidable." But it breaks some kind of social pact to roll for a strike and then change the outcome after the fact. 
  • When the bosses aren't "playing by the rules." When the bosses seem to completely sidestep the rules of the system you're in, it can be frustrating because players are left adrift. There's a reason the system exists; breaking the rules themselves should be done when it makes sense and sparingly. Burning a ton of high level spells just to be told "that kind of magic doesn't work on him" is vague and confusing.
  • When they are completely blind-sided. If players are fighting low level kobolds and suddenly run into an ancient dragon that one shots them, there should probably be some kind of plot reason.
  • When they can't do anything satisfying to the boss. If every single thing they do just whiffs, it becomes frustrating. Even if their attack can't hurt the boss, the DM should at least make it feel rewarding.

And again -- having a fight feel unfair doesn't necessarily mean that the fight was unfair. Often being a DM is a matter of managing perceptions as much as anything else.