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by Mike on 5 July 2021
Players love to focus fire on bosses. It's a strong instinct that, unfortunately, tends to break the drama, excitement, and sense of danger of the fight. What fun is it if your lich boss dies in the first round?
Here's a quick trick to protect your boss and push the players to change up their tactics: Let the boss shift the damage it takes to its minions.
Let's say we have a cult fanatic guarding a portal to the realm of Xoriat along with a bunch of cultist minions. When the charaters kick in the door, they'll certainly focus their fire on the fanatic and, if you're not careful, they'll take him out in a single round.
What if, every time the fanatic takes damage, he can route that damage to one of his cultist minions? Now if he gets blasted for 18 points with a guiding bolt, one of his cultists bursts apart in a blast of radiant energy and falls dead to the ground. This both protects the boss and shows the players that they may be better off carving through the minions which have a lower AC and are easier to hit and kill.
Some monsters have this protection built in. A boss with a shield guardian can route half the damage they take to the guardian.
We can make this even more effective by making it all damage instead of just half.
This trick also scales well from 1st to 20th level. At lower levels it might be a bandit captain throwing damage off to her blood-sibling bandits through a dark ritual she had performed ahead of time. At 20th level it might be a lich transferring all damage to her four iron golems.
Sometimes it works best with a large number of weak minions, like cultists. Other times it works better with big meaty lieutenants like armored ogres, flesh golems, fire giant thralls, or other big brutes.
We might even add targeted spells to this ability. If a character targets the boss with a spell, the boss can redirect the target to one of it's minions.
We have to be careful that this doesn't railroad the battle too much. Too much of this and it can seem like the battle can only go one way. Consider carefully when you inject an ability like this. Use it sparingly.
This damage transfer ability is an excellent and powerful tool to help steer boss battles away from a one-round murder festival. You may not want to use it all of the time but it's a handy tool to keep in your bag of tricks when you think it suits the situation.
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