This article is mostly applicable to games that have a blend of combat and role-playing elements, ala the various Live Effects games, Rendalir Remembered, Dying Kingdoms, Twin Mask, etc.
I’ve played in (and run) a lot of different styles of LARPs with boss encounters, and I’ve seen a broad variety of ways to handle it. Over the years, I’ve put together an idea of what I tend to prefer to see in a boss fight from both a player perspective and a staff perspective. This is pretty subjective – there’s no right or wrong way to handle encounter design, but I’ve seen traits that I think tend to improve the quality level, in my opinion.
First off, it’s important to recognize that in most of the games I’ve mentioned, characters tend to fall into specific roles even if though the games aren’t strictly class-based. These often resemble traditional pen and paper or PC game roles, such as tanking, damage dealing, crowd control, buffing, debuffing, and info gathering.
The best boss fights, in my opinion, allow characters of all roles to have some way to contribute. This doesn’t mean all styles of characters should be mandatory for the encounter; rather, if they are present, they should not be useless. Below, I’ll break down some of the ways each role can be useful in a boss encounter.
Tanks excel at absorbing damage and attracting the attention of opponents. In order for this to be effective in a boss fight, the tank needs to have the tools necessary to play this role, and the boss needs to *not* have abilities that render these tools invalid.
Abilities that make tanking less effective include instant death attacks, any ability that completely bypasses armor, abilities that bypass shields, and immunities to tank-specific mechanics (e.g. taunt, if it exists within the system).
This doesn’t mean that a boss can’t have some abilities that bypass defenses, but they should be used sparingly and with the knowledge that they can invalidate the tank’s kit.
Damage dealers are usually some of the most effective characters against bosses, since bosses often have bags of hit points. There are a couple specific mechanics to watch out for, though, and they’re relatively common (in my experience).
Binary defenses (e.g. “Evade” or “Dodge”) that ignore the amount of damage dealt by an attack make it easier to track the # of hits to a boss, but they also reduce the usefulness of the damage dealer specialization. It may be tempting to have all hits to a boss be reduced to 1 for tracking purposes, but I would advise resisting this temptation and allowing damage dealers to retain their specialty. To help with the logistics side, I recommend assigning a combat GM to the boss to count damage, rather than having the person playing the boss attempt to count hits.
Immunity to physical damage is also relatively common. This functions to cut out newbie damage dealers who don’t have the benefit of buff spells, magical items, etc. I sometimes see this used as another logistics tool for preventing the boss from having to count these hits; I advise using the combat GM approach instead.
Healers don’t usually have trouble finding something to do in a boss fight, but it is important to note that certain mechanics can bypass the normal healing system (e.g. instant death attacks) and therefore deprive healers of their roles (unless those healers also have resurrection spells, which they might not).
On a related note, bosses sometimes have debuffs with unusual or difficult removal methods. This can be interesting, but also extremely confusing from a logistics standpoint. I strongly advise keeping most boss abilities within the scope of the normal rules, or with modifiers that are easy to intuit, to prevent logistics confusion.
Buff characters are usually pretty effective in boss fights – I just recommend resisting the urge to give bosses too many abilities that strip buffs off players. This can be okay in moderation, but if overused it can make buffers much less fun to play.
Crowd Controllers often have the hardest time in a boss fight. Sometimes they’re useful against minions, but it’s rare (in my experience) to find bosses where crowd controllers can have a direct effect. This is due to bosses frequently being given a significant number of binary defenses (e.g. evades/dodges) and often outright immunities to control effects.
These binary defenses and immunities are usually put in place to prevent crowd controllers from being too effective and one-shotting the boss, invalidating the fight.
Rather than taking this approach, I advise giving bosses special defenses that reduce the duration or style of control effects. For example, “Paralyze” spells are reduced to only lasting a few seconds, giving players a key window of time to damage the boss or rest. Sleep spells don’t knock the boss out, but they’re reduced to slowing him or her down for a short period of time. Silence effects don’t last a long duration, but they can be used to interrupt the boss in the middle of a spell incantation. Etc.
Debuffing characters largely fall into the same category as crowd controllers – they’re offen negated in usefulness by binary defenses. I recommend the same solution here; let the boss take the effect, but with reduced efficacy or duration.
This is pretty straightforward – don’t make your bosses immune to info gathering abilities. Info gathering is a pretty obscure niche, and boss fights are one of the rare opportunities for these characters to contribute meaningfully to a combat situation. Communication between PCs is also often difficult. These characters have a challening role to play – give them the tools to play it effectively.
Aside from making sure each character role feels valid, I have a few other boss fight suggestions.
Some of the most memorable boss abilities – both in LARP and otherwise – are powerful abilities that are telegraphed to allow them to be avoidable or interruptible. The single most iconic boss fight in Shades of Ruin was the Ashbringer and the Deepstrider, where the two bosses periodically met up and performed a collaborative (and interruptible) spell incantation.
Memorable spell incantations are a great way to do this, but physical telegraphing is also an excellent tactic. The Nightmare Dragon always paused, knelt, and extended his wings before using his breath weapon. The breath weapon only hit a cone in front of him. Players picked up on this, and learned to use the window of time where he knelt down to get out of his frontal arc. This was a successful and memorable mechanic.
Boss fights that change in the middle can help keep things exciting. This could be as simple as starting to use a couple new abilities, but it’s more impressive when there’s something clear to indicate a phase change. For example, the Nightmare Dragon shifted between human and dragon forms, which involved a quick hold and costume change (with staff on stand by with the dragon’s wings and harness). This made the phase change obvious and powerful.
Giving bosses unique and interesting weaknesses can also contribute to making the fight memorable. Elemental weaknesses are common, but there are plenty of other options, such as specific substances, weak points on the boss’ body, key items that can be stolen from the boss and disabled, etc.
Boss fights often involve some form of loot, which is awesome. My recommendation here is pretty simple – try to find ways to reward everyone, not just the player who loots the body first. This can be coin, influence cards (in games where it’s applicable), or some sort of permanent marking of the achievement.
When giving out items, I recommend giving them personality. That doesn’t mean the items have to be intelligent (although those are some of my favorites) – rather, I mean that boss loot can serve as great hooks for players to do cool things in the future. Maybe the boss has a spell book that contains unique spells – and personal notes on another treasure horde. Maybe the boss has a consumable item that has an effect that’s normally impossible for players to use.
The goal here is to give everyone who wants to be involved in a boss fight a meaningful role, as well as a meaningful reward. Not every boss fight has to have equal roles for every play style – some can specialize – but it’s wise, in my opinion, to try to ensure that no one feels useless.