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, hardcoreUse 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 ThreatOn 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 & AskWhen 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 PressureWhen 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 SolutionsOnce 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 NumbersIf 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.