The first time I ever ran a tabletop game, I was running Mutants and Masterminds. The story was an alternate history set in 1920’s America. Due to political issues surrounding the presence of superpowered individuals referred to as “adepts” (thanks Golden Sun), a president was elected who took a harsh stance against them. This caused a particularly powerful adept called Durandarte to rise and lead a rebellion, and it was this rebellion in which the players participated.
Behind the scenes, darker things were brewing. Durandarte was actually playing both sides – he was the very president his rebellion swore to topple! His motive? Controlling both adepts and those who feared them gave him all the resources he needed to execute his ultimate plan: the revival of a dark god. While bringing back the god’s spirit would be easy, it needed a body to inhabit. Over the course of the campaign, Durandarte sent his most powerful servant, the Collector, to creepily harvest limbs and other body parts off of the villains the players defeated.
Once the evil president Frankensteined all these villains into one twisted body, he summoned the dark god and its soul entered inside of the misshapen creature. In the end, the players would have to defeat not only Durandarte, but the dark god he had summoned as well.
I pictured this in my head as this huge, JRPG-style clash where the villain becomes this godlike figure that brings ruin with a sweep of his arm. You know, kind of like this:
And of course who can forget this:
In pursuit of this level of endgame epicness, I had – I kid you not – a NINE STEP final battle planned out. It looked a little something like this:
Step 1 – Fight Durandarte and the dark god
Steps 2-7 – The god dark takes the form of each individual being used to create its body
Step 8 – Durandarte and the dark god fuse into one supergod being
Step 9 – After their body is destroyed, their consciousness takes over a player character
The party then had to figure out if it was possible to spare their newly-possessed ally, or if he should be killed in order to stop Durandarte’s scheme for good.
Fortunately for my players, I realized pretty quickly during the session that steps 2 through 7 were going to be terrible, so I left that aspect of the battle out of the session. But even without that section, this ended up being WAY too much combat and made the final session something of a letdown. Also, friendly GM tip – do not give control of the final boss’s actions to one of your players. It will not end well.
Wanting your game to end on a strong note is a pretty natural instinct. And it’s natural as well to want to emulate the final battles in games you’ve played or films you’ve watched. The tricky part is figuring out how to actually make that work. I put a couple of different ideas together without thinking of how to apply them mechanically, and while I realized my mistake in time to do some damage control, I definitely didn’t get that epic JRPG effect I was reaching for…or maybe I did. After all, those Square Enix final bosses can get a little too lengthy. But I digress.
In light of that memory, today I thought it might be fun to talk about what exactly makes a final boss battle “epic,” and if there’s a tried-and-true way to manufacture that feeling.
IS THERE A WAY TO GUARANTEE A TRULY SATISFYING FINAL BATTLE?
No. I’m skipping the dramatic lead-up to the answer. As an example of something dissatisfying. And now I’m explaining the joke, so it’s even more dissatisfying. And maybe a little awkward.
There’s no way to guarantee that your final battle will be incredible. The best laid plans and all that. You can have an absolutely perfect ending planned out with a brilliant villain that perfectly balances difficulty with possibility. And two of your players will come to the session having had a bad day at work while the third guy just got a new girlfriend so all he’s thinking about is calling her when he gets home, and suddenly you have a bunch of people who don’t care about your incredible ending and the whole thing falls flat. It happens. As long as your players are human beings, you can’t “guarantee” anything. So my first bit of advice is to not get caught up in expectations. I think the best campaign ending I ever had was one that I didn’t really build up to be this huge thing. I had an roughly-thrown together idea for a finale, a relatively intriguing villain, and a mindset of “hey, it’s the last session, so let’s just have a good time.” And it was great. So much better than any attempt I have ever made to create some ridiculous incredible Square Enix style finale.
NOW DOES THAT MEAN YOU SHOULDN’T TRY TO PREPARE A COMPELLING FINALE?
Also no. Yeah, players can mess stuff up, but they can also be a source of incredible creative inspiration and they can really make a game come alive. If you give them good material to work with and they’re fully engaged in the experience, what comes out can be truly incredible.
So what can you do to make a compelling final battle? Well, the main technique I recommend is to-
When I designed the final battle for my first-ever campaign, I literally went to every cliche in the book. “Ooh, what if they have to fight all the villains from the story again as part of the final battle? OOH, and two villains fuse together and turn into some kind of crazy godlike being! AND WHAT IF A PLAYER TURNS EVIL?!?!” It was ridiculous, and piling cliches on top of each other like that made the whole experience even cheaper than it would have been had I just calmed down a bit and chosen only one. So rather than embrace cliches, do something unexpected.
I mentioned that a lot of my inspiration for my first final boss came from the godlike powers of Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. In his monster form he has this absolutely ridiculous attack that blows a hole in every planet in the solar system before smashing into the party and dealing heavy damage to them. Here’s the thing, though – that battle against Sephiroth isn’t the FINAL battle. It’s part of the overall end of the game, but crazy-demon-wing-god-man Sephiroth is not the one that people remember. The fight that truly stands out in Final Fantasy VII is when Cloud stands against Sephiroth one-on-one in the theater of his mind. He’s not godlike, he’s not a destroyer of worlds; he’s a man, and he and Cloud cross swords in a battle that’s much more understated but infinitely more meaningful.
Final battles don’t have to be these incredible displays of “who can blow up more of the universe while we try to destroy each other?” The choice to move away from that cliche and to do something more subtle can actually make the battle more engaging for your players. But hey, I’m not gonna just sit here and say “avoid cliches.” I’m going to offer some suggestions on how to do that!
Endgame boss battles tend to be ‘Final Destination no-items’ kind of battles; just a straight up fight on fair, even ground. Generally the party is facing some kind of big, overblown enemy – a god, a dragon, a sorcerer, the Godking Dracolich, whatever. But why not change things up a little? Maybe the final boss is a group of evenly-powered villains who match the numbers of the party and can stand against each member one-on-one. Maybe it’s a robot horde that vastly outnumber the players. Maybe the villain stands alone, but is playing dirty and the players have to figure out how to overcome the boss’s unfair advantage.
Another way to avoid cliches is to make the environment interesting. Maybe the villain isn’t godlike in power, but the environment the players fight him/her in keeps the battle active and engaging. One of my favorite video game boss fights (granted, this character was not a final boss, but he should have been!) is the fight against Zant in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Zant is a pretty creepy dude with extensive magical powers, but it doesn’t take long for him to realize that Link can kick his tail. So, he changes the game.
After you show a clear advantage against Zant early on, he changes the battlefield. He uses his magic to teleport Link to different locations, all with different challenges. This forces Link to stay on his toes, frequently change equipment, and to fight the environment just as much as he battles this evil sorcerer. A battle where the elements are just as dangerous as the villain can add something fresh to your finale, particularly if dangerous environments did not populate other parts of the campaign.
That brings me to another point:introduce a new mechanic. Yeah, the endgame seems like a weird place to add in something that has never been part of your campaign before. But if you’re intentional about this, it can make the final battle really memorable. Has your campaign been a series of single combat standoffs? Make the final battle a full-blown war scene, where the players have to try to survive in the midst of a bloody melee that cares nothing for plot armor. Were most of the enemies your players faced gruesome monsters? Show them just how monstrous a human being can be. Maybe there’s a game mechanic that hasn’t seen much use throughout the campaign, like grappling or magic or the rules for height advantage (insert obligatory “I have the high ground” reference). Suddenly having a boss that makes strategic use of that mechanic can freshen up the final fight.
Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that the final “confrontation” of an RPG doesn’t have to be about fighting. This is clearer in some games than in others, but it’s a principle that could be applied across the board to really help add something extra to your finale. Making the end of the game about a moral dilemma, about a hard choice to make, can be incredibly engaging, particularly if your players are invested in the beliefs of their characters.
One of the best examples I have ever seen of ending on a moral dilemma is inFamous 2. I’m going to be spoiling the ending here, so if you’ve never played this game and plan to, you might want to skip this part. Anyway, inFamous tells the story of Cole MacGrath, a man who has the power to control electricity. He is one of many people known as conduits (think “mutants” from X-Men; superpowered individuals with unique genetics from humans). At the end of the second game, a plague is sweeping the world that is slowly killing everyone who contracts it. The cure? Become a conduit. And the only way to do THAT is through the powers of a mighty Beast, and those powers murder a whole lot of regular humans in the process. There’s a small chance that there’s another way to cure the plague with a special device, but activating this device would kill every conduit on the planet.
So here’s the choice: Cole can kill every conduit in the world to MAYBE save humanity, or he can kill every human in the world to DEFINITELY save conduits. Cole is a conduit, his best friend is a human – no matter what you choose, the stakes are high. Nothing feels like a perfect answer. And if you choose to destroy humanity in order to guarantee the survival of the conduits, Cole’s best friend Zeke stands against him.
Zeke is powerless. All he has to fight against Cole is a small pistol, and Cole has super-durability and a regeneration factor. But rather than show defeating Zeke as a cutscene, the game forces you to raise your hand towards your best friend and mercilessly blast him with lightning until he crumples dead on the ground. Is it a “challenging” final boss? Definitely not. But pressing the trigger in that moment is agonizing, and you really feel the weight of the choice you made. THAT kind of finale can be just as effective in a tabletop game, and it can leave your players with a sense of awe that really sits with them even after the game is over.
So there you have it! At the end of the day, there’s really no such thing as the “perfect” final boss, and your best efforts can still lead to a disappointing session if your players are checked out. But trying these techniques can set you up for success and create final bosses that are interesting in a way that’s fresh to the folks around your table.
Now I turn the conversation over to you, adventurers. Do you have an example of what to do (or not) based on your own experience around the tabletop? What techniques would you recommend for making an engaging final boss battle? Be sure to let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading today’s Tabletop Tuesday!