Designing a Dynamic Encounter
So your party is approaching the final battle of the story arc, and you want to make the encounter epic. This isn’t some back alley brawl or tavern fight, this is a boss encounter to end all boss encounters! You need to make this awesome! So where do you start? In this blog, we will be putting together a mock encounter using tips, tricks, and suggestions from several experienced game masters they use to build unique and dynamic encounters. It will be using Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition classes and monsters for ease of understanding, but many of these can be applied to a plethora of game systems.
Know Thy Enemy
While you may believe the “players” in this context to be referring to the actual playable characters, it is important to not forget about yourself as the game master in this equation. You are in fact a player, and your character is the monsters and environments that the player characters are interacting with. In this situation, let us say that the big bad the party will be fighting is an Aboleth. The Aboleth is a large water-dwelling psychic abomination using its high intelligence and mind control abilities to influence the world from the background, making it a great long-term foe that our party has been attempting to foil for quite a few sessions. Its skill set and cleverness make it a fun monster for a Dungeon Master to use. Inside of its lair, it should make for an exciting encounter. Now that we have the foe locked down, let us take a look at the party itself so we can come up with a plan.
Understanding the Dungeons and Dragons Players
Firstly, we will make the assumption that the challenge of the creature is appropriate for the party. Our player group will consist of a Druid, a Paladin, a Rogue, and a Ranger along with the rangers pet wolf. To make a balanced encounter, we need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each character, along with the enemies they will be fighting. The Druid has gone the spell casting route giving them a plethora of healing and support spells, as well as a huge pool of hit points with their various beast shapes. So far during the campaign, they have been the primary healer, switching into a beast form to help mitigate their survivability. The Paladin has built themselves to be incredibly hard to hit and acts as the shield of the party. The Rogue took the Arcane Trickster archetype, so they have the ability to augment their killing potential with illusions, and have been playing in a way that helps control the battlefield and attack high-value targets. Finally, the Ranger and their pet wolf are pretty stereotypical ranged damage dealer builds. This is where the party's steady damage is going to be coming from. Obviously, these classes can be played in many different ways, but for this example, we are going off these styles of gameplay.
Looking at the Dungeons and Dragons Battlefield
As we set the stage for this encounter, we have to keep in mind a few concepts. Firstly, the party will be assaulting the Aboleth’s liar, so the environment will be suited for the Aboleth, not the party. This is an obstacle they will have to overcome. Secondly, our Aboleth is a very smart creature, given its high intelligence score, who prefers to rule from the shadows through proxies and minions. This means that its liar is likely to be guarded and trapped against potential threats. Our Aboleth, being a creature that lives in water, gives us a basic foundation of what our battlefield will look like; water will be involved. This adds an elevation element to the battle as our heroes will have to deal with the movement, attacking, and line of sight problems of battling a creature that is underwater. We don't want to turn this into just a simple brawl between the players and the monster though, so let's throw in an extra element. Let's say that the Aboleth is using a ritual stone of ancient construct to amplify its telepathic powers through its priestly followers located just on the shore of the underground lake our battle will take place in. We now have part of the battlefield underwater, and an objective out of the water, requiring the party to split their attention. The ritual stone has allowed the Aboleth to connect to all their powerful allies and minions on the surface simultaneously, meaning that if the party can not shut down the ritual that the priests are enacting on the stone, they could soon find themselves overrun. By doing this, we give not only the party an objective beyond “kill the bad guy”, but we also give the Aboleth a reason to stay and fight instead of simply running away at the first sign of trouble. We will say that the terrain is also muddy and slick, making movement difficult. As we have established, the Aboleth is incredibly intelligent, meaning it most likely has a quick way out if the situation begins to go too badly, something that the players are going to have to factor in or else deal with a more prepared threat later down the road. A threat with a grudge to settle.
Setting the Stage
Now that we have made broad strokes with our encounter design, let's start putting in the finer details to really make this encounter interesting. To do this, we are going to take a closer look at our party and mold the environment around them, while still keeping the spirit of what the Aboleth would do in mind. We will start with the Druid. With their wild shape ability and natural high Wisdom score as a spellcaster, the druid is the most likely candidate to battle the Aboleth in its home environment. It can turn into a creature that can breathe underwater and their high wisdom saving throw will have a decent chance of resisting the many negative powers that the Aboleth can throw at it. This gives the Druid a sense of purpose and a role within the fight. The Paladin has gone the route of the “tank”, and with the myriad of Area of Effect buffs and spells that they can use, they may find themselves aiding the Druid in the battle with the Aboleth, or on the shoreline helping to stop the ritual. This gives them the option to change up a role they have built themselves for, without feeling like they are hindering the party by doing so. If the player wishes to carry on what they always do and be the frontline fighter, they can do that. If they wish to mix up that role and play a more supportive role in this fight, there is a place for them there as well. The Ranger with their bow and pet would be at a severe disadvantage being underwater, so they are perfectly suited to deal with the ritual taking place above the water. They may even have chosen a favored terrain or spells that would negate the movement difficulty on the slippery rocks, making them the ideal candidate to stem the tide of reinforcements that may try to aid the Aboleth. This causes the Ranger to step out of the role of primary damage dealer by targeting the ritual instead of the boss but does not punish them for their character’s “maximum damage” build. The Rogue, with increased speed, can move between confrontations as needed, getting some good damage on the Aboleth when able, then racing back to the surface to help the Ranger if they get overwhelmed.
The Best Laid Plans
As a Dungeon Master, it is always wise to keep in mind that things rarely, if ever, go as you plan. The party themselves may decide to take on this challenge in a completely different way and you must be ready to throw out your expectations at the drop of a hat. This example was kept very broad because there are just too many factors to account for (gear, play styles, spell choices, house rules, etc.), but will hopefully give you ideas of what to look for and things to keep in mind when designing your own high-stakes encounters. The goal is to just make the encounter fun for everyone involved. If you attempt to bite off more than you can chew you are going to end up stressing yourself out, and if you’re not having fun, your players can tell. So come up with a general plan, and then sit back and enjoy the chaos!
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