I often see players and Game Masters alike lament how boss fights in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition feel boring.
One way you can add a little spice is by introducing multi-phase boss fight mechanics to your game.
But, what are multi-stage boss fights? And, how do they work?
By the end of this article, you’ll know what multi-phase D&D boss fight mechanics are, why you should consider using them in your game, and some ideas of stages to use.
Let’s start by defining what multi-phase mechanics are.
What a Multi-Phase Boss Fight Is
A multi-phase or multi-stage boss fight breaks a combat encounter with a powerful villain into multiple parts, called "phases" or "stages". Each phase brings its own challenges and alters how the combat proceeds for a pre-determined amount of time.
Now, many video games with a combat system include multi-phase boss fights. It works well for making the boss fights unique and for keeping players on their toes. Personally, I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XXIV in my spare time, and many of the dungeon and Trial monsters have multiple phases. So, that’s kind of what inspired this article in the first place.
So, why not work the concept of a multi-phase combat into your D&D boss’ fight mechanics?
Breaking a fight into multiple stages also gives you freedom to craft a truly unique encounter for your players. D&D 5e has lair actions and legendary actions for certain monsters which kind of get close to the idea of multi-phase fights. But, these mechanics aren’t quite the same.
It might take a bit more planning as you need to plan out the mechanics for each phase, when the phases happen, and how many phases there are in the first place. But, the benefit is your boss fights become more interesting.
Why You Should Use Multi-Phase Boss Fights in Your Game
The main benefit of using multi-phase boss fight mechanics in your D&D game is you get to throw an interesting challenge at your players. By introduced multiple stages throughout a boss fight, you keep the combat more dynamic and interesting as the characters can’t stick to one tactic the entire encounter.
I often see players and Game Masters lament how combat in D&D 5e devolves into a slugfest between the monsters and player characters. Everyone, monsters and characters included, takes their positions and proceed to beat each other into submission.
Multi-phase D&D boss fights help make your combat encounters much more interesting by introducing new mechanics, alterations to the battlefield, obstacles, and other challenges.
A side benefit of using multi-stage boss mechanics is keeping your players on their toes. This is especially helpful if your endgame villain is a well-known monster like a dragon or vampire. You can alter your boss monsters to include unique attacks, gain a power boost, summon minions, or any number of other mechanics.
Adding Multi-Phase Boss Fight Mechanics to D&D
Before you go adding multi-phase boss fight mechanics to your D&D game, there are a few things to consider. You should understand how capable the player characters’ capabilities are, how to make the phase mechanics work according to your game, and how to describe phase transitions so your players understand what is happening.
Adding multi-phase boss fight mechanics to your D&D game is a great way for crafting unique and memorable encounters. But, there are a few things you should keep in mind before introducing these mechanics to your game.
It’s important to note that multi-phase boss fights in D&D only really work with creatures that have a good amount of hit points. Player characters often have the ability to reduce a single monster’s hit points down to nothing in only 2-3 rounds of combat. So, you need to ensure that your boss creature can withstand the party’s onslaught for their different phases.
We’ll go over a few things to bear in mind so you can ensure your multi-stage D&D boss mechanics are fair, make sense, and give the players enough information.
Understand Your Player Characters’ Capabilities
Know how capable the player characters’ are so you can judge whether additional phases pose to great of a threat. Introducing a second (or more) phase to your boss fight might make things a bit too difficult and may seem unfair.
This aspect is especially important if you plan on introducing a new phase late in a boss fight.
You need to understand where the player characters stand over the course of a boss fight. If they’re struggling, you might want to forego that awesome transformation phase. If they’re doing very well, maybe give the boss a few more hit points as part of their enrage phase.
Don’t worry, we’ll go over some of the different phases you can use in your game.
Now, you might just commit to the flow of the boss fight, moving from mechanic to mechanic. Just understand that things might take a turn for the worse if the player characters have expended all their resources and took a beating leading up to the phase transition.
You also need to understand what the player characters are capable of prior to the boss fight so you can establish the phase mechanics in the first place. This way, you can craft a fun and unique encounter that challenges the party but doesn’t seem outright unfair.
Making the Boss Fight Mechanics Make Sense
Make sure your boss fight mechanics make sense given the setting and the type of phase you want to use. Introducing a new phase just because you can may ruin your players’ immersion.
A nonsensical boss phase can ruin the whole encounter. So, make sure your stages make sense given the boss themself (i.e. what sort of creature they are), what sort of abilities they have at their disposal, and the setting of the game.
For example, having the wicked noble suddenly turn into a dragon mid-fight when you haven’t hinted at anything draconic might not make a whole lot of sense.
Now, in that same example, if you did seed hints throughout the campaign, then it could work. Hinting at the noble’s ancestry of dealing with dragons or their recent dealings with a draconic cult could serve as good clues leading up to the boss fight.
Another example would be having the kobold clan leader suddenly call in a host of gryphons. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t make any sense. But, if you provided hints that the kobolds were stealing eggs from the local gryphon rookeries prior to this, then that could work.
The point is, your each stage of your multi-phase boss fight should make sense. Even if a phase wouldn’t ordinarily make sense, if you seed hints and clues throughout the campaign, you can make it work for your boss fight’s mechanics.
Be Descriptive During a Phase-Transition
Describing a phase transition is very important for informing your players what to expect moving forward in the battle. You don’t need to explicitly tell your players what the phase is, but your description of the transition into a new phase should provide hints as to the new fight mechanics.
As a GM, you should be describing environments, enemy status, and other aspects of the game. So, use those skills to describe what’s happening during a phase transition to ensure your players understand the next stage of the boss fight mechanics.
If you don’t, the players might feel like the fight is unfair or you deliberately made it unwinnable. There’s a school of thought when it comes to unwinnable combat encounters in D&D, but that’s a different discussion. The point is, you want to avoid seemingly unfair fights and describing phase transitions in your multi-stage D&D boss fights is a good start to preventing that.
Things along the lines of:
"As the noble flees, they call upon their bodyguards. The doors leading into the chamber burst open as the Royal Knights rush in to protect their charge."
"The giant falls to one knee. It rests their for a beat before slamming the ground with its fists and lets out an earth trembling roar. Turning its gaze towards you, you see the anger, bloodlust, and desperation in its eyes as the creature’s muscles bulge."
"Descending from the sky, the dragon crashes into the ground. It turns its mouth toward one of the many caverns dotting the battlefield and lets loose a torrent of scorching flame. The tunnels expand, releasing gouts of fire all around you before collapsing on themselves."
The first example tells players that an add phase is starting by introducing more enemies to the fray. The second, the boss fight enters an enrage phase and tells the players that the giant has gained in strength. The final example informs the players that the environment has changed and they might need to contend with more difficult terrain.
Just make sure your descriptions give some sort of clue as to what the next stage of the fight entails.
Ideas for Phases in a D&D Boss Fight
There are some classic phases many games use. And, these ideas are relatively easy to incorporate into your D&D boss fight mechanics.
Four of the most basic phases include:
- The Transformation Phase
- The Add Phase
- The Environment Shift Phase
- The Enrage Phase
Each phase idea offers their own way of making your D&D boss fights unique. Also, they all present different challenges to your players by introducing differing obstacles from each other.
Let’s go over each of these boss phase ideas in a bit more detail.
A classic in multi-phase boss fights is when the enemy changes into a different form.
Adding this mechanic to your D&D boss fights is easy enough; start with one creature and once they reach a time limit or amount of hit points, they turn into a different creature. Whether the second form has the same or comparable amount of hit points as the first form or the full amount of their second is up to you. That’s part of adjudicating whether the party could handle a transformation phase or not.
For example, the party engages with the necromancer whose plans they’ve thwarted the entire adventure. After reducing the necromancer to zero hit points, the villain falls only to have the body turn into a hulking undead corpse due to the vast amount of necromantic energies they’ve been exposed to.
Adding a group of weaker enemies (or "adds") while the boss leaves the battle changes the dynamic of the party’s positions.
There are two ways of handling an add phase in a D&D boss fight.
- The boss leaves and the adds attack
- The boss calls on their minions to help them in battle
The first method of introducing an add phase can be a bit tricky. You need to give the villain a reliable way of exiting the battlefield. This becomes especially difficult at higher levels when player characters have access to spells that either cancel magical teleportation or spells that compel a creature to stop. That said, you can always hand wave the villain making their exit, but that’s a bit heavy-handed and may break immersion.
If you can pull off the boss leaving to make room for their minions though, it’ll instill a sense of urgency in your players to handle the minions quickly.
Adding additional monsters while the boss stays in the fight is much easier and it still works well in pressing urgency onto your players. Not only do they need to deal with the boss and all their mechanics, but they also now have to deal with a number of, albeit weaker, creatures possibly surrounding them and compromising their positions.
An example of this is the party begins a fight with a dragon. After a few rounds pass, the dragon lets out a call and dozens of kobolds or a group of lizardfolk emerge and engage with the party as well. If the enemies appear close to the healer or spellcasters in your group, that complicates the direction of the fight.
Environment Shift Phase
Particularly strong creatures may have control over the environment or scheming villains may have set up magical or mechanical devices to alter the battlefield to give them an advantage.
A change to the environment is a great way for improving your D&D battlemaps. One way of altering the battlefield is to have it happen during a specific phase of a boss fight.
This type of phase works especially well for powerful monsters or creature who wield strong magic. This is because an environment shift phase usually results from the boss causing the alterations themselves. But, that doesn’t have to be the only case.
For example, a clan of crafty kobolds may place explosives at strategic points. Once the boss fight reaches a certain point, the explosives detonate, either dropping the party into a lower level or simply causing mass destruction to the battlefield.
The point is, introducing a change to the battlefield as part of your D&D boss fight mechanics forces the players to adapt their strategies and adjust to the unexpected.
Usually the last phase of a boss fight, an enrage phase involves giving a creature a significant power boost. They become much more deadly and imposes a sort of time limit on the combat.
In many games, the enrage phase happens when the party takes too long to defeat a monster. Usually, this happens after a certain amount of time and doesn’t really depend on the boss’ health or physical state.
Once enough time passes and during an enrage phase, the boss becomes much stronger, dealing more damage with their attacks and abilities, taking less damage from the player characters, and potentially moving faster.
That isn’t to say you can’t have a boss enter an enrage phase as part of your mechanics once they reach a certain number of hit points. In fact, it makes perfect sense to do so. As the boss realizes their dire situation, they put all of their energy into dealing as much damage as possible to the heroes as the encounter becomes a " do or die" situation.
Now, you need to be careful with using an enrage mechanic in your D&D 5e boss fights. Player characters may have few resources at their disposal towards the end of a fight. So, making the villain significantly stronger might make the combat unfair.
That said, using an enrage phase towards the end of the fight can make the combat more fun and satisfying should the player characters succeed.
When to Introduce New Phases
The typical times to transition to a new boss mechanic in D&D is either at certain hit point thresholds or after a certain number of rounds finish.
In almost every game that includes multi-stage fights, phase transitions happen after a creature reaches a certain number of hit points or after an established amount of time. So, you can use these as the basis for your D&D boss fight mechanics, too.
Now, basing phases on hit points is an easy way of tracking when the next stage should start. But, you need to be careful because the player characters may deal a little too much damage leading up to the next phase of the fight.
Since D&D 5e, and other TTRPGs, typically use a turn-based combat system, you can either start a phase transition on the boss’ turn, as soon as the prerequisites get met (for phases based on hit points), or at the top of initiative (for round-timed phases).
You have a few options when it comes to this problem.
- Have the players deal the actual amount of damage. If they outpace the phase transition, then they enjoy an easier fight.
- Stop tracking damage until the phase transition. A bit disingenuous, but it prolongs the fight so you can include the next stage at the appropriate time.
- Start the next phase as soon as the boss falls to the requisite number of hit points.
These are just suggestions for basing a multi-phase D&D boss fight on hit points. Whatever works for you, I say stick with that.
Round-based phases are a bit easier. Basically, a phase starts after a set number of rounds pass. For example, the boss has magical detonators that will go off after three rounds. So, at the start of Round Four, the detonators go off causing whatever effect they were built for.
That said, you need to be careful with this too as the players may deal more damage than you anticipate, leading to them defeating the boss before reaching the requisite number of rounds to activate the next phase.
Are these the only two ways of introducing new phases in your D&D boss fight?
Absolutely not. But, given how D&D 5e’s combat works, they’re probably a couple of the easiest. So, I’d recommend starting with them before going too crazy with you game’s boss mechanics.
Should Every Boss Fight Have Multiple Stages?
Not every D&D boss fight should have multiple phases. Overuse of these boss fight mechanics may cause your players to dread every potential major fight as they become more complex.
You should really only consider using multi-phase boss fight mechanics in your D&D game for combat encounters that really matter for the story.
Honestly, this is general advice for even regular combat encounters too. You don’t want every fight to feature highly tactical creatures or complex fight mechanics. If every fight is a strategically difficult encounter, your players will soon dread entering combat and will do everything in their power to avoid it.
So, for the side-quest boss fights, maybe leave them relatively simple. Not every "boss" fight needs to have multiple phases.
Summary of Multi-Phase D&D Boss Fight Mechanics
That about covers everything to get your started introducing multi-phase boss fight mechanics to your D&D game.
Multi-phase combats involve introducing new challenges to players over the course of a single battle. You should know how capable your players are before introducing multi-phase boss fight mechanics so you can challenge them without making the combat seem unfair. There are a variety of stages you can use and your imagination is honestly the limit, but some of the classic phases include transforming into a different creature, having the boss leave and introduce minions to fight in their stead, altering the battlefield, or entering an enrage phase that involves taking less and doing more damage.
Honestly, playing other games that include multi-stage fights is a great way to find inspiration for your TTRPG campaign.
Do you use multi-phase boss fights in your D&D game? How have your players handled them? Leave a comment below to help others find inspiration!
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