A recent conversation about the end of Dead Suns got me thinking about campaign climaxes and memorable encounters. Boss battles, if you will. So much of Starfinder, and many other TTRPGs, is combat encounters, how do you make what is essentially yet another combat stand out as a both a narrative climax and an interesting combat in order to provide a capstone to a session, an adventure, or even an adventure path?
First off, for the narrative, it is largely going to depend on the work you’ve done before that encounter. The players need to have a sense of the upcoming climax, and how that fits into both the over arching story as well as their own character’s arcs. Ideally they should have an emotional investment, whether that is out of the heroic desire to save the town/world/galaxy, or simply to get revenge for having been humiliated and having their transportation stolen so they had to walk somewhere in the rain. Both, if you can. The more invested they are in the fight, the better it is going to feel as a resolution for the story.
All that is well and good, but if it is just a bog standard slog fest against a pile of hit points, it may feel like a bit of a let down. Let’s look at a few ways to spice it up.
3, 2, 1 I’m the Bomb
If you’ve ever has a BBEG with the Solarian class template, you know what I’m talking about. Players are used to boss encounters against casters, where the big guns come out right away, but if they can survive through those rounds the threat tampers off. Against a foe with a constantly recharging massive damage area effect that strategy does not work. Suddenly the imperative is not to wear the boss down, but rather a race to lock them down somehow before they can bring that big boom out again, and gods help them if the squishy types are getting caught in the blast. This doesn’t have to a super nova either, as there are many tools in the GM’s tool chest to make the party feel that pain. Aura’s, gaze attacks, or even environmental hazards can bring out that urgency, the important thing is the timer. After the initial time the effect comes out, find a way to let the party know there is a clock ticking down before it happens again.
This Isn’t Even My Final Form
A trope so old I couldn’t even tell you what video game it first showed up in. The BBEG isn’t just one encounter, but rather a series of encounters as they change from the form the party knows them in, into various different ones that are consecutively worse. From the GM’s side it’s actually fairly simple, just line up your stat blocks for each form, and set thresholds for the transitions. Maybe the fight starts out as the party vs the BBEG in a mech, then once that is disabled vs the BBEG, and once the boss is low on HP he triggers some bound monster that will destroy them and the party in a final attempt to flip the board rather than lose. Or maybe they are just Ganon/Sephiroth and change into increasingly freaky monsters the longer the fight goes on. The choice is yours, just make sure you’ve got a tight understanding of the encounter numbers as a running combat like this is going to tax your players.
Shadow of the Colossus
An encounter type made famous by the 2005 game Shadow of the Colossus, and copied by many others since then. The key here is scale. To start with the party is faced with a challenge so big it doesn’t fit on the battle map, it IS the battle map. Step one isn’t even a fight, it is a series of skill challenges as the party tries to reach various points on the massive foe so they can even expose vulnerable areas. They could have to climb the titanic beast, or pilot a mech up it’s tail, or interact with a series of mystic seals in the area, or any number of ideas. The key to the first stage is giving moments for multiple characters to shine while wearing down resources. There isn’t a timer, but each failure results in an area effect that damages some or all of the party. Failure at this stage isn’t a party wipe, but it does mean the threat isn’t defeated so consequences happen. Stage 2 is a mini dungeon or series of mini dungeons as the party has to deal with traps and/or auto-defenses in a play to further weaken the colossus. Think 3 small maps with foes or hazards and at the end a crystal/computer/bound extraplanar creature that has to be interacted with via a skill. Stage 3 is the real fight. Now the gigantic enemy is weakened such that the party can actually fight it. Maybe it has shrunk, or is now bound such that only it’s face and one arm can be brought to bear, or they are in the control center of the mecha-kaiju and must fight it’s holo-twin on a smaller scale to disable the whole. Whatever the setup, this is the real fight. And if you are really aiming to up the ante, maybe it is a fight that incorporates some element of the previous two concepts…
There you have it. If you’ve had particularly memorable boss battles in your game I’d love to hear about them, especially if you found a way to incorporate any of these strategies!
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