Monday, June 17, 2019

How to handle "boss" monsters in DW

I originally posted this on the Dungeon World Tavern, in response to Lauri Maijala asking: 
"How do you handle wizards etc. 'boss monsters' that do not have a cohort of minions to keep the characters busy. I have failed constantly with them and feel like even three characters can take out any single threat without too much of a trouble."
The Dungeon World community at large is pretty quick to say "read the 16 HP dragon" article (content warning: passing reference to violence against children) when someone asks about making monsters more than just their numbers.  It's a good article, but it doesn't really tell you how to do those things; it shows you a high-level example of those things in action. 
It's on my "someday maybe" list to write up a fictionalized "actual" play example of the 16 HP dragon incident, showing how that scene might have actually played out, with moves and rolls and GM deliberation. 
But until then, here's an attempt at some specific, actionable advice for running "boss" monsters. 

Step 1: Stat the boss monster up, hardcore

Use their moves, special qualities, and potentially their lair and gear to make them hard to get at, able to interrupt player actions, and capable of dealing with multiple foes at once. Bonus points for moves that take PCs out of the fight without actually killing them.

E.g. qualities like “Aura of will-sapping menace” or “Hidden by swirling shadows.”  Moves like “Reveal a preparation” or “Unleash a spell of death and destruction” or “Turn their minds and fears against them.”

For a spellcaster/magic-user, maybe think a little about the specific spells they can cast, or at least the nature of those spells.  Try to word that into your moves (“Unleash a deadly spell of fire and flame” is better than “Unleash a spell of death and destruction”). Or, make a list.  But if this really is a big bad, don’t feel constrained by the list. Think of that list as giving yourself permission to do those things, but maybe they can do other stuff, too.

if it helps, find a badass picture that helps you visualize the BBEG

Give the baddie armor and HP by-the-book. The danger doesn’t come from the numbers, but the numbers keep you honest and make you play to see what happens.

Yes, this means that a solid blow from the Fighter or Paladin will quite possibly one-shot them.  (Consider the number of times Conan murdered a sorcerer by just effing throwing furniture at them.)

Here's an example, by the way, of the kind of hardcore stat-up that I'm talking about:  the ancient vampire lord.

Step 2: Show Signs of an Impending Threat

On the way to the big bad, drop hints of what its capable of. Build it up.  Have the party encounter the remains of a village, burnt to cinders with charred skeletons all about, a strange untouched spot in the middle where the sorcerer stood.  Share rumors. Show the big bad’s minions cowering in fear.  That sort of thing. 

If they you've built up some respect for the big bad by the time they encounter it, the next few parts will be much more effective.

Step 3: Reveal Unwelcome Truths, Tell Consequences & Ask

When the fight actually starts, use the big bad’s qualities and traits to block or counter the PCs moves. 

When the Fighter rushes in to attack, the sorcerer glares at him and his “Aura of will-sapping menace” kicks in. Describe the Fighter’s fear welling up like nothing he’s felt before, his hands shaking, his arms and feet frozen, unable to move, what do you do?  Probably, he’ll Defy Danger against his own fear and doubt.

When the Ranger takes aim and shoots, on a 10+ you reveal the flame ward surrounding the sorcerer. The arrow bursts into ash.  On a 7-9, if the Ranger chose to draw danger or attention, you also have the sorcerer gesture towards him and unleash an expanding wave of fire, coming at the Ranger (and the Cleric next to him) like a wall, what do you do?

When the Wizard starts casting a spell, tell him that he can sense the big bad’s powerful wards in place, like there’s a contingency spell ready to bounce back at him. Do you keep casting?

When the Thief sneaks around to backstab, the shadows themselves reach out and grab him, choke him, ensnare his arms, what do you do?

Block and interrupt their moves with the big bad’s defenses. Ensnare and bog down the PCs with the environment and its preparations.  React to any opening in their moves with disproportionate force, affecting as many PCs as seems plausible (and remember that "plausible" for this big bad is well beyond what's plausible for most foes). 

Step 4: Keep Up the Pressure

When it’s your turn to make a move (because they rolled a miss, or a 7-9 on DD or H&S, or because they chose to Defend or Spout Lore or Discern realities and thus ceded the initiative, etc.), go big.  Unleash a power word stun that hits everyone in the scene. Conjure a meteor swarm that blasts half the battlefield and sets buildings aflame and causes walls to start crumbling.  Summon a 12-foot tall fire elemental that's rushing straight at the Thief and the Fighter.

Whatever move you make, make it something that multiple PCs have to react to.  Ideally, make it something with consequences beyond damage, something that will continue to plague them and escalate the situation.

Step 5: Encourage Lateral Solutions

Once you make it clear that a straight-forward approach is doomed to failure or at least prohibitively costly, the players will start getting creative. Reward that! 

If they Spout Lore or Discern Realities, give them good stuff on a hit (but remember: keep up the pressure and fling something nasty at them when they pause to assess the situation or wrack their brains). 

If they come up with clever solutions, make them Defy Danger as appropriate but otherwise let the solution work! 

Step 6: Follow the Numbers

If the PC's get past the big bad’s defenses, identify a workable plan, and maneuver to a place they can take advantage of it, and they get a solid hit in… cool! 

Be a fan of the heroes.  Let their blow have an effect.  If it does enough damage to drop the baddy, drop him.  They worked for it, and they won.


  1. Thank you for digging that up from the G+ archives and polishing it into this post - very informative and actionable!

  2. I'm so glad I've found this blog, but a little sad to see it kind of abandoned. I hope to see more in the future, because this is golden! Kudos to you!

    1. Oh, it's not abandoned at all! I'm just focused on getting a full draft of Stonetop completed. Expect more in the future, hopefully soon!

  3. When the Ranger takes aim and shoots, on a 10+ you reveal the flame ward surrounding the sorcerer. The arrow bursts into ash. On a 7-9, if the Ranger chose to draw danger or attention, you also have the sorcerer gesture towards him and unleash an expanding wave of fire, coming at the Ranger (and the Cleric next to him) like a wall, what do you do?

    Help me out here. The rules for Volley are like this:

    When you take aim and shoot at an enemy at range, roll+Dex.
    On a 10+, you have a clear shot—deal your damage .
    On a 7–9, choose one (whichever you choose you deal your damage):
    You have to move to get the shot placing you in danger as described by the GM
    You have to take what you can get: -1d6 damage
    You have to take several shots, reducing your ammo by one

    On a 10+ on Volley, the PC deals their damage. How can the GM re-write the rules of a core move like that?

    1. Yeah, that one’s admittedly controversial. Here's my thinking.

      First, that example assumes the sorcerer has some special quality (“fiery ward against projectiles”) or move (“incinerate incoming projectiles”), one of the “blocks” that I describe above.

      The issue hinges on how you present the “block” in play. If it’d block the _trigger_ of the move, then I definitely, 100%, wouldn’t even have them roll the move. If the trigger can still be met, just with negligible results, then it’s less clear.

      H&S’s explanation has that qualifier of “an ‘attack’ [must have] a chance of causing physical harm.” If the monster’s huge and “made of stone” and the PC tries to stab it with a sword,” then no H&S. Tell them the consequences (“your sword isn’t gonna do squat, you still stab it?”). If the monster’s invulnerability was less obvious (say, a drake with impenetrable scales), I’d let them fictionally commit to the attack but reveal an unwelcome truth instead of having them roll H&S. “You move in and slash it, but it’s like hitting a big bronze bell, just like WHUUMM and your arm goes numb.” Probably follow it up by putting them in a spot (“and as you recover, it rears and chomps at you, dagger-sharp teeth like YAW, what do you do?”).

      Volley‘s trigger is “When you take aim and shoot at an enemy at range.” No mention of an “attack” in the trigger, no qualifier in the explanation text of having to be able to actual harm it.

      So: H&S specifically says that it doesn’t trigger if you can’t hurt them; Volley doesn’t. If there’s a fictional qualifier like “sorcerer protected by a fiery ward that incinerates projectiles” and the PCs don’t know that it’s there, then I’m okay with “roll to Volley.” A 10+ means that they *do* have a clear shot, but then I describe what the fiction demands—the arrow bursting into flames before it can hurt the sorcerer.

      Also: Volley is a “safer” move than H&S. The 7-9 result risks dealing less damage, or expending ammo, or exposure to a (usually) soft move. Compare that to H&S where you suffer a hard GM move on a 7-9. Even on a 6-, the Volley is mitigated by range (and maybe with cover), whereas a on a 6- to H&S you’re exposed to all sorts of harm. Because Volley is less-risky, I’m more comfortable letting them roll it and exchanging “deal damage” on a 7+ for “revealing important tactical information.” I wouldn’t do that on a H&S.

      With that said: I get where you’re coming from, and I would do this sort of thing sparingly. More often, I’ll tell them the requirements/consequences BEFORE they commit to the Volley roll. If the foe is a 12’ tall animated bronze statue, I’ll say “your arrow won’t do squat, you still want to Volley?” Even with this fire-warded sorcerer, I’d describe the heat shimmer around the sorcerer, hint that there’s something strange going on before they commit to the Volley.

      I also recognize that players might feel cheated if they get to roll Volley only to find out “no, this foe was protected by a fiery ward against projectiles.” If you feel that way, or think that your players might, than take the same approach that I suggest for a H&S: don’t ask for the roll, just say that they take the shot and tell them what happens (arrow burst into ash). Probably follow that up with a soft move (e.g. sorcerer flings a burst of flames back at the ranger, what do they do?).

      If you’re still thinking “How can the GM re-write the rules of a core move like that?” Write a custom player-facing move! Something like: “When you would harm the sorcerer with a projectile, you don’t. It bursts into harmless flames a few feet from his body instead.” Reveal the move the first time it’s triggered.

      If you want something more mechanical, you could give the sorcerer a custom move/special quality like “Fiery Ward: the first 20 HP of damage done by projectiles or missile weapons are negated by the ward, the attack reduced to cinder and ash.” That gives the PCs an option to overwhelm the ward with some effort, and makes their damage roll not “meaningless.”

    2. TL;DR version:
      • Technically, Volley triggers when you aim and shoot, regardless of your ability to do harm.

      • If it’d be obvious that their shot would have no effect, tell them that up front.

      • But if it’d be a surprise, I think you can justify the move triggering and the 7+ revealing the invulnerability.

      • If you disagree, just skip the roll and tell them they take the shot, reveal the unwelcome truth, and maybe follow-up with a soft move to put them on the defensive.

      • If you still don’t feel comfortable just saying “no damage on a 7+,” then you can give yourself permission by writing a custom move for it.

    3. Thank you for that detailed explanation. It was very helpful.