The Boss Monster’s Boss

Matroyshka DollsLast night was our regular Thursday Night session where I’m running my Rome campaign. During a break for food, discussion turned to the events of last week and the NPC the players had killed.

It had been a close fight, even through the party had managed to catch the NPC off-guard and alone in his own home (well, the party thought he was alone but that is a different story). The party were shocked to find that this NPC who they first encountered six levels earlier was really hard. Especially because they had considered attacking him back then and several other times during the intervening months.

“Would he of been so hard if we attacked him back when we were 2nd level?” They asked.

“Of course” I replied, “The NPC is a significant part of an massive evil plot, he has to be high level”.

The players were surprised and relieved that their caution had prevented them rushing into a fight they could not win. This was very pleasing because in writing Rome I wanted to get away from the usual trope or conceit campaign writers use – that of the Boss Monster’s Boss.

The typical 1st – 3rd level adventure ends with a 5th level boss monster in a nicely balanced but winnable fight. Only for the party to discover in the boss’ lair, evidence of a bigger, nastier plot suitable for character’s 4th – 6th level. Like a matryoshka doll, when each boss monster is slain a new foe is revealed.

This is a very handy device for adventure writers but it has always annoyed me. If the ultimate boss monster had just applied 5 minutes of their time to helping their most junior underlings, the adventurers would never get anywhere near the final lair. It doesn’t have to be much help. A simple tour of inspection of their outer defenses and the casting a couple of Glyphs, Fire Traps or even Alarm spells would make their whole enterprise so much safer.

With Rome, I’ve tried to avoid this particular trope. Something that is made easier because it is a city adventure and the players can pick and choose when they fight someone. It is much harder to do in a traditional dungeon hack where the party has to methodically clear out every room before they can find the entrance to the deeper dungeons.

However, just because it is hard, doesn’t mean it is not worth doing it. By deviating from the normal, predicable tropes, the players will be challenged to think in new ways.

What would your party do if they began the assault on the final room only to find themselves completely outclassed? Driven back by something far more powerful than they had expected, would they stand, fight and die? Flee completely? Or establish a base somewhere else in the dungeon and start planning a war of attrition? Until you challenge your party with the unexpected, you will never know.