by Mike Shea on 23 January 2012
Boss monsters need help. We've discussed the problem and potential solutions before but it's worth returning to the topic again. Boss monsters; whether they be elites, normals, or solos; all act like a beacon for the wrath of your party. If you've built up your boss's reputation correctly, your players are going to want to pound them into the ground like a railroad spike. Sometimes this might be a fun end to the villain, but sometimes you want these bosses to give a bit of challenge to your group before they light up like the sun and explode.
But what if that single boss isn't a a single boss at all? What if the boss is split among a number of different monsters? Now nuking a single target isn't possible. That focused PC wrath will be redistributed among a group of monsters. How can this be possible? Let's take a look at an example.
The party finally faces off against a nemesis of theirs, a powerful street hag. As the party faces off against her, her form splits into three identical images. One of them, begins twisting her fingers into channeled arcane energy while two other forms grow long claws, slide along the ground, and tear into the party. All three cackle with the same maniacal voice as two huge golems burst from the streets and attack.
In this example, our big boss simply splits into three single hags, each of them a part of the whole. The party doesn't have a single target and the hag gets three full turns worth of actions. There's really no mechanics to this, it's all in how the encounter is described. On paper, it's three hag monsters. But in flavor it's a single hag split up into three forms.
A battle like this also has a built-in combat-out. While the three hags also have two street golem bodyguards, the bodyguards are clearly not the main target. A good perception or arcana check will inform the party that the golems are under the control of the hag and will fall apart if all three hags are defeated.
The traditional wizard's simulacrum spell is another great way to do this. Big bad boss spell casters are big targets for PC nuking. What if that wizard simply split his form into three or even five different simulacrums? Now there is no single target to defeat. Each of these three wizards act independently but all represent a single boss.
You can even have a battle switch phases upon defeat. Consider a master vampire who, when bloodied, transforms into three bat swarms (reskinned Stirge Suckerling Swarms) and a pair of dire wolves, both from the Monster Vault. When three of the five are defeated, the vampire returns to his original form for a final onslaught.
A group of monsters representing a single boss has a lot of advantages over solos and elites. First, they spread attention, status effects, and damage among a group rather than a single creature. Dazes, stuns, dominates and other such debilitating effects are far less effective against a group than they are a single creature. This also improves the action economy of your boss. Instead of having three to five actions a round, they now have all the actions of all of the monsters representing the boss.
There really aren't any mechanics to this trick. It all comes with your ability to flavor a group of monsters as a single entity. Tell the story right and your group will get the benefit of a tough battle against a single foe without simply destroying a single target on the battle map.
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games. You can also pick up my favorite monster books the Monster Manual 3 and the Monster Vault. Need some good hags or vampires? Pick up D&D Miniatures from Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.