He’s big. He’s bad. And you can’t beat him. The unwinnable boss fight is a hallmark of many video games that I’ve played for as long as I can remember. It is also a common feature seen in movies and stories as well. This article will talk about how to build a good, unwinnable boss fight that players can still have fun with even if they are fighting a losing battle they cannot win.
What Is an Unwinnable Boss Fight?
The encounter of the unwinnable boss fight can come in many forms. It could be fighting a character that is so far beyond the player characters’ experience levels, that they simply cannot even affect the individual. It could be fighting against so many opponents at one time that it is just not realistic for the characters to defeat them, as simple attrition will destroy them. Or, it could be that the player characters simply don’t have the items or knowledge necessary to defeat the enemy at that time.
In an unwinnable boss fight, by definition, the player characters will not be able to defeat or kill their enemy, thus winning the fight. Since most players view defeating or killing an enemy in combat as winning the fight, they may be prone to getting upset over being placed in a fight that they cannot win under any circumstances. This is why, in the interest of fun, the primary focus of an unwinnable boss fight should be that other important objectives can be achieved during the fight.
When developing the encounter, there should be opportunities for small victories within the fight to be achieved. Some examples of these small victories might be:
• Killing off a different notable enemy non-player character (NPC).
• Saving an ally NPC from being captured or death.
• Destroying an important enemy asset.
• Holding off the enemy long enough for another objective to be achieved.
• Acquiring an important item or information during the battle.
These small victories give the players a sense of accomplishment even if they can’t kill their enemy. In a different way, they are able to “win” the encounter by overcoming the enemy and completing some other goal. This is very important to most players, especially when entering a challenge that they initially determine will be impossible to triumph over in the traditional sense of the word.
An unwinnable boss fight is very different from most combat encounters that you will have during the tabletop experience. Players are used to being able to win in tabletop games. When you put them against an encounter that they can’t win in the customary way, this can take them off-guard initially.
Here are some things to avoid when running an unwinnable boss fight:
• Don’t be vague about the fights difficulty level.
• NPCs can taunt the characters, but don’t taunt the players.
• Don’t forget to pre-build in small victories.
When designing a fight that the players can’t defeat the enemy in the traditional way, you have to make that apparent up front. Players are not mind readers. If the boss is too powerful for them to destroy, you have to make that blatantly apparent to them. That way they don’t start smashing their head against a brick wall expecting to knock it down.
While conducting the narrative portion of the combat, make sure that any extremely powerful enemies only taunt the characters and not the players. What I mean by this is its okay for the big, bad, invulnerable opponent to taunt and mock the characters. That’s what bad guys do after all. But make sure that it is very clear you’re not inserting an unbeatable non-player character into the story just to antagonize the players. It should be about furthering the overall story and giving the characters a different challenge that they may be used to.
As stated earlier, make sure to build those small sub-goals into the encounter so the players feel like the encounter accomplishes something. They may not be able to defeat their archenemy, but if they can destroy his base, escape with valuable information, or rescue an ally hostage, it will still feel like a win to them.
The best part about an unwinnable boss fight is that it gives players a different look at a combat encounter. Too often, players and gamemasters are willing to start a combat encounter, throw their powerful characters against mechanically lesser creatures, and revel in the awesomeness of their combat prowess. With a good gamemaster at the helm, this is usually a great recipe for gaming fun. But this approach can become boring and stale over time.
The main point of the unwinnable boss fight is to show that combat can still be fun even if the players are fighting a losing battle they cannot hope to win. Give them other objectives to complete. Let them expand their minds a little on the idea that they can’t walk over every enemy in the game. And most importantly, have fun while doing it.
Have you ever ran, or been part of, an encounter like this? How did it go?