A Note on Unique Boss Monsters


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Normally I like fulfilling readers’ requests, but I’ve gotten enough of one particular category of request that I feel like I need to discuss why it’s an exception.

Several readers now have asked me to analyze the dragon goddess Tiamat or the demon lords in Out of the Abyss, and I regret to say, I’m not going to do that—for a few reasons.

First, while I do own Rise of Tiamat, I don’t own Out of the Abyss, and I don’t plan to run it with my own players, so I don’t have a good reason to buy it and thus don’t have access to the stat blocks. (“I’ll send them to you! Just tell me what you need!” Hang on there, tiger, I haven’t gotten to my other reasons yet.)

Second, analyzing specific boss beings would be a spoiler of the worst kind. I don’t mind if players read this blog—especially those whose characters have some sort of favored enemy about which they’d know these things from experience—but anything you read about a certain type of monster is a generalization, which an individual monster might defy. In contrast, if I wrote up game plans for unique beings, players could read it, download it and plan around it, using meta-knowledge their characters would have no way of possessing. That’s contrary to the spirit of roleplaying. (For the same reason, I’ve thought about creating lists of quick-reference links to all the monsters in a given published adventure—and subsequently decided against it, because it could inform players of what to expect.)

Third, I’d like to think that I’ve already indirectly provided you with all the tools you need to do what I do, so that Orcus or whoever becomes a solvable problem for you. The articles on dragons, krakens, liches, etc., break down how to employ lair actions and legendary actions; this one talks about spellcasting prioritization; and so forth. Generally speaking, I write the articles on this site to save you prep work. But a boss monster should take work. You need to be fully in that baddie’s head.

With all that said, here are a few tips on how to think about the demon lords (keep in mind that I haven’t read OotA, so this all comes from my own knowledge of the lore of past editions):

  • Make yourself a table of all the various demon lords’ features. Identify which features they all (or mostly) have in common and which ones are unique to specific demon lords.
  • The features they all have in common form the backbone of demon lord behavior.
  • The features that most of them have in common tell you something distinctive about the one or two that don’t share it.
  • The features that are unique to specific demon lords will distinguish their behavior from that of others and should be featured prominently.
  • Demon lords are just that: lords. They’ll always surround themselves with as many minions as they can marshal. Attacking one should be a massive gantlet of pain. PCs will have to not only be world-class heroes but also world-class strategists just to reach them, let alone to take them down. Also remember that demon lords didn’t become demon lords by letting some other chump demon encroach on their power. They’re justifiably paranoid—of other demons, most of all.

As for Tiamat, just take everything I wrote about ancient dragons and crank it up to 11.

I hope that helps, because with regard to these big bads, that’s all the help I’m going to give you. Sorry, folks.

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7 responses to “A Note on Unique Boss Monsters”

  1. Tim Bannock Avatar

    Good reasoning, all around.

    I’d expand your point about “They’ll always surround themselves with as many minions as they can marshal” to include that the location of the battle is possibly nearly as much a factor as the demon lords’ abilities. See, since you don’t own Out of the Abyss, you don’t know this, but that entire adventure is basically a setup for the Demon Lords to be completely out of their element, and without all of their best minions, and most of their armies. I think only [redacted] and maybe one other one establish any sort of “base” in the Underdark, with the rest going on a Godzilla style rampage due to the events of the adventure’s setup.

    Point being, they are without any of their potentially biggest tools. I almost feel like OotA works best if players get to run the Demon Lords and just smash some drow cities and beat up each other like the old Godzilla movies of yore.

    Assuming a “normal” setup, the Demon Lord’s lair and all of the stuff they’d have at their disposal is just suicide for any PCs. The terrain would be hellish landscapes of lava and constant damage-dealing terrain, dozens if not thousands of rampaging demons and/or undead, and entire castles or whatever they live that would be tailor made for them to use as a weapon during a pitched battle.

  2. James MacDonald Avatar
    James MacDonald

    What about when they come out in Mordekainens tome of foes? They will be much more accessible to players once that book comes out so would they not be fair game?

    1. Kyle Burke Avatar
      Kyle Burke

      Well, in Mordenkainens tome of foes they kind of nerfed the demon lords. Most have less HP and deal a die or 2 less damage on their melee attacks.

  3. Nico soze Avatar
    Nico soze

    I’m quite disappointed by this. But I completely understand your reasoning and won’t argue with your logic. I guess I’m just gonna have to spend a week trying to BECOME fraz-urb’uul. That scares me a little.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      It shouldn’t take you a whole week. A couple of hours, tops. It takes me longer because I have to write it all up.

    2. David Warren Avatar
      David Warren

      My group just fought fraz-urb’uul and won, but it was really tough. We had several PC’s go unconscious but were healed back, permanently lost an NPC. The DM amped up Fraz’s illusion abilities and added invisibility at will via an item, and then kept hitting the characters with Phantasmal Killer. He made an illusion of a much larger version of himself, and the party wasted a lot of planning time and a couple of rounds of combat on preparing for that giant version of the demon lord, which didn’t really exist.

  4. […] clear of giving tactical advice for final boss fights and explains his reasoning for doing so here. I respect his reasoning. In fact, I don’t fundamentally disagree with him. Normally, going […]

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