Boss Battles in Numenera

Published June 10, 2014 by in For Gamemasters, Gameplay


I recently responded to a call for advice over at Ninth World Hub regarding how easy a party of players can take out a single enemy. While combat isn’t the focus of Numenera in general, that doesn’t exclude the possibility of “boss battles” or powerful, singular enemies to fight. If you do want to focus on combat, if only for a small moment, you will find that the player characters are extremely effective combatants.

With effort, cyphers, powers and abilities and the fact that characters have (starting at Tier 1) around 30 health, it’s really hard to take a player out or make them feel threatened or afraid for their lives before they can take out a single enemy. That’s in a 1-on-1 scenario, typically you’ll have a party of 3 or more player characters, so when you are throwing a single bad guy at them the odds become even more skewed in the players favour. When a single tier 1 player can, in a single attack, so upwards of 6 damage a round, with multiple players that’s a lot of damage to absorb to survive even one round. If you are aiming for an epic battle, you need something a bit tougher.

The simple solution is to choose an enemy with a much higher level. An enemy at level 6 requires a roll of 18 or higher to even hit it and a tier 1 player can only apply one level of effort, reducing that to 15 or higher. That’s effectively a 1/4 chance to hit, plus they can’t add effort to the damage now. The trouble with this approach can be that the player then end up feeling impotent where they can’t even touch the enemy, so finding a right balance can be important for the feel of the battle you are going for.

The circumstances of a fight really make all the difference. My players have escaped from prison and other forms of capture before, where they are surrounded by several high-level enemies. For example, their first fight was versus 6 level 6 royal guards, and a level 6 warlord with an artifact weapon, the players were level 1 at the time and there were only 3 of them. That might seem like overkill, but they mopped up. It was tough, and one of them dropped down the damage track, but they did this entirely without cyphers (they’d been stripped of their possessions earlier). The odds were stacked against them heavily, what with the levels difference being so huge and them not having cyphers, but the circumstances were such that they wouldn’t be killed, and they knew this (or at least had a good idea) so such unfair odds made for a tense, high-stakes battle.

Using minor effects, or letting things happen due to surprising their enemies, I let them get the upper hand, even while I was approaching the battle from a position of overwhelming advantage. If I’d played it entirely ‘straight’, they likely would have lost, but letting them pull off some awesome manoeuvres and by penalising their enemies based on various things the players had done, thus dropping their levels and making them easier to attack, things ended up evenly matched, but much more exciting and dangerous than a straight-up equally balanced battle might have been.

Similarly, they fought Rasters before and that battle was much closer to their level. This was whilst they were on a ship so they had limited range of movement, plus the Rasters had long-range weaponry so they could stay out of range, making a fairly easy to kill enemy far more difficult.

I’ve had them fight in a burning building before, which naturally caused issues for them in what was otherwise a fairly mundane fight (this all as the result of a GM intrusion on using the Push esotery when you have the Bears a halo of fire focus).

Large numbers of medium level enemies make for a more stamina-based battle because they can’t afford to spend effort constantly. Getting into a battle with 20-30 enemies is a seriously big deal and the sheer numbers involved often encourages the players to find a non-combat solution which are generally more fun and interesting anyway.

Lex StarWalker covered most of the basics in his response to the post, and for me the ‘environmental factors’ of a battle are really where its at, not just in terms of the actual environment (its on fire, windy, slippery, zero-g) but also what is going on. What if the players are in a fight surrounded by innocent people? Would your players use area-of-effect attacks that would hurt innocents? What if they are in a delicate bubble under the sea or in a vacuum, would they risk piercing it and causing themselves other problems? There are many ways you can impose limitations on a fight that might make it otherwise more difficult than it would be, while also serving double duty by providing you clear hooks for GM intrusions.

I’ve not really done any singular “boss-battles” in my games, so I can’t speak from experience, but as I see it you generally have two scenarios:

  1. The big-bad is intelligent
  2. The big-bad is a mindless beast

Intelligent Bosses

In the first case, the solution is to make use of that intelligence. Any sane person/creature is not going to take on 6 people at once unless they have an advantage. Either they are untouchable (or believe they are) due to terrain, some kind of ability (flight, phasing, invisibility, force fields, etc), they have underlings that can keep the party busy, or they have some kind of secret weapon or secret escape plan.

A big boss has a few strategies they can employ against a group of players. They can overwhelm the enemy with force, force them to divide their attacks so the boos isn’t so much of a target or otherwise put the odds further in their own favour somehow.

To overwhelm them, the boss might carry an extremely potent numenera weapon. A boss is a lot more threatening when it has some kind of long-range rapid-fire laser that can deal a lot of damage multiple times a round and requires either a lot of expenditure of effort to dodge, or slows down attacks due to players needing to take cover. Suppressive fire can be used to declare all attacks against the boss are 1 step more difficult (and also a reason for GM intrusions for being hit whilst stepping out to attack). Alternatively, the boss might have some numenera that makes hitting it harder or impossible with physical force (perhaps it detonates a numenera that connects them all to the datasphere, putting their bodies into a coma in the real world as they fight it out in the battlefield of the mind, making all attacks target Intellect first) or giving it multiple attacks per round due to Speed effects. When an enemy can attack twice, that’s twice the amount of effort required to guarantee improved odds of avoiding a hit. The enemy might use poisons or other effects too, in order to make attacks deadlier, even going so far as to push a character down the damage track, or disrupt their ability to use esoteries.

An intelligent enemy might pick off players one by one, focusing all their attacks from all their resources on one character in order to force the others to defend and protect them, or retreat to avoid a comrades death. The boss might also put one of them out of action which when dealing with a large number of opponents can be a critical advantage. Perhaps the boss forces them to divide their efforts through use of decoys, minions or other distractions, perhaps erecting a barrier between some of them or some kind of temporary paralysis or slowing effect so it doesn’t have to deal with every player at once, making the fight more manageable.

In terms of avoiding damage, having control of the terrain can be a great advantage. Just by being in a familiar place like their lair, the boss might be 1-step harder to hit or avoid, as they know all the best places to duck and to hide and how to get around or find cover. Perhaps they literally control the terrain, having access to pit traps, crushing traps, spikes or other obstacles they can trigger remotely, or perhaps automated gun-turrets and other weaponry that acts as a separate attacker. They may be able to throw up walls of force or even physical walls using an ability or switch, or make the floor slick and slippery, making all actions on it harder for the players. If the boss is well practiced in dealing with these issues (as they should be if they created them for this purpose) they wouldn’t be affected by those penalties either, so they could fight toe-to-toe on a slippery floor without suffering the same penalties the players are suffering from. If they can fly or phase out or teleport, then they can easily get out of range of melee and/or avoid projectiles, as well as give themselves attacking advantages by taking higher ground, doing surprise sneak attacks or other manoeuvres.

Naturally if they are a powerful, intelligent entity, they will have underlings. Rarely does a smart person put themselves directly in harms way and so they may summon backup or already have it with them. Every attack the players make against a lower level goon is an attack not made against the boss, giving it more time to cause damage or escape to fight another day.

The boss might have a secret weapon or escape plan. Perhaps it has a powerful artifact that will reduce a player’s pools to 1 each and they can threaten the party with the characters death if they don’t surrender or allow the boss to flee. Perhaps it has a teleportation cypher it is loathe to use (because of pride, or because it doesn’t want to abandon it’s lair and loot to the players) which it pulls out at the last second.

There are many various options for tweaking an intelligent boss battle and a lot of it comes down to the circumstances of the fight. Typically, if it’s a boss, it should be in control of the situation when it is confronted by the players, but even when lured out into a place the player think they have the upper hand, an intelligent enemy is never going to put itself at risk without an ace up it’s sleeve.

Unintelligent Bosses

In the second case, a mindless beast isn’t going to commit suicide. If faced with odds it can’t win, it will likely flee. That said, if it’s a boss battle, it’s likely in a situation where that isn’t an option for it. When it isn’t intelligent, you have less options because it can’t plan or think, but that doesn’t mean things are hopeless, this is Numenera we are talking about so almost always the solution is to crank up the weird dial to 11.

The creature may have eaten or been exposed to a cypher which randomly causes effects both negative and positive. Perhaps the creature phases in and out, perhaps it is wreathed in flames or emits harmful radiation. The creature itself may have been modified in some lab or by some nanite process and actually has weaponry or armour built into it that operates automatically. Maybe the creature instead of dying, splits into two new creatures when killed, each with half the full health of the previous incarnation or perhaps it has some kind of rudimentary mind control that can make players turn on each other or otherwise be distracted. The creature might not even be a creature at all, but a solid light hologram projected by a protected automata within, so their damage to the ‘hologram’ itself does nothing and they need to find a way to deactivate or damage the device within.

Another simple solution is to just massively ramp up the health of a creature. When a creature has 300 health instead of 30, it’s suddenly in for a much longer haul. Perhaps it’s a healthier or enhanced specimen or just the Alpha of the pack. Speaking of which, packs – not being intelligent doesn’t mean it can’t have backup or minions. Hell, perhaps the beast has intelligent followers that worship it as a god and they attack and defend on it’s behalf!

There are plenty of options to make a battle more exciting if you want to use them – you never have to just use a creature out of the book verbatim and have a party fight it with no other modification. In fact, I tend to view all the entries in the book as ‘baseline’ versions – a starting template from which to build a customised, memorable encounter. And again, the enemy itself should play only a single part of a much richer encounter that takes into account the circumstance of the enemy, the players and the surrounding environment to give it the feel you want to achieve.

This article was originally posted by Andrew Montgomery-Hurrell on his website at http://darkliquid.co.uk. Republished here with permission.

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  • Nicholas Johnson

    Recently I have been trying to figure out a way to make my battles a tad more scary for the players as they seem to steamroll a lot of the opposition in their way. I naively thought that levels were the answers and when that didn’t work I read this. You might be interested to know, Andrew, that the very next battle I did (using your advice) had them running away for the very first time. Granted that is what I wanted them to do in that case, but thanks to you I now know how to make the characters think twice before jumping into combat. Thanks a whole bunch!!!!

  • Bryce Undy

    Interesting advice. I tend to run battles cinematically as possible, so that battles don’t become raw numbers or tactics, but are vibrant dynamic events.
    Tips I have used include ensuring that the Boss has a number of different ‘moves’ up his sleeve, like signature moves. These could be just powers or maneuvers they use only once in the battle or an interventions, such as when a Jiraskar slams an opponent with his tail and then stamps on them, or when a Mesomeme grabs a character and holds them under water. Special maneuvers add dynamic character to the battles and helps create memories that long outlast the campaign.
    Weaknesses. Bosses are usually really hard to beat, perhaps high armor etc. But if the characters can target a weakness, once they determine it, this can bring balance. This usually requires some set up, potentially with a first, none lethal encounter, that allows characters to discover the weakness. I usually not use this approach, it can be risky. But recently I did let the players themselves ‘create’ a weakness. I had this automation that was superheated (steel angel from the Vortex, returning through the Portal after being pushed through in an earlier encounter). So one of the characters had a freeze ray cypher… explosion with shrapnel, but it worked. So, you can leverage your player’s creativity, which only encourages them to think more outside the box.
    Encourage your players to be creative by describing the environment in such a way that they come up with novel ways to use it. I described the jungle as tall trees, some of the partly fallen on their neighbours, thick vines, etc. So a player character ran up a tree and leaped of to attack the Jiraskar from above! I didn’t penalize them, instead gave them an asset to their attack. I try and reward that sort of thing, because it makes the game so much more interesting for me and for the other players.
    One area to be careful is cyphers. A number of cyphers can be instant kills and players tend to save them for the big encounters. Eraser is deadly, as is the one where you can make a surface phase out of wack… such as the floor the big bad is standing on! (actually, that was good, very creative way to use the cypher). Its a tricky balancing act to ensure that cyphers don’t always tip the balance. Fortunately, the one use and random nature of cyphers goes a long way to bring balance by itself.