Anatomy of a D&D Campaign is a periodic look at the planning of Dungeons & Dragons sessions. We will dig a little deeper into technical elements, with discussions about encounter design, crafting unique monsters, and handling unique challenges that come up at the table.
Not every Dungeons & Dragons campaign needs to end with an epic boss fight. While the traditional D&D campaign ends with some big confrontation against a villain, building to that sort of ending can limit the scopes of your campaign, especially when players don't reach a particularly high level. For instance, a typical party of four Level 6 adventurers would be hard-pressed to defeat an adult red dragon on their own, while a group of Level 9 adventurers would struggle against a lich, even if they fought them fresh off of a Long Rest. That's why most low-level adventures end with a fight against an appropriately sized threat, such as a regional warlord, or a relatively unknown wizard with an ambitious scheme that threatens a region or maybe a small kingdom.
While the easiest solution towards building to a "final boss" is to ensure that the players are at an appropriate level, there are ways of crafting a satisfying ending without either weakening your boss or leveling up the party too fast. In fact, having the party fight a supposedly insurmountable threat encourages players to come up with creative solutions and take risks, which often results in a more exciting ending than having the players beat up a bad guy with superior numbers on their sides.
Over the past few months, I've shared occasional updates about one of my Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, which featured a party of dragon cultists. The players were tasked with freeing their "god" from his prison in the Shadowfell, after the dragon accidentally released a dangerous extradimensional entity called the Thousand Mouths that threatened to consume all of reality. Last weekend, that campaign came to an end, with the players (who were Level 6 at the end of the campaign) facing one final gauntlet that pushed them to their limits, but didn't feature a traditional direct confrontation with their main antagonist.
The final encounter occurred at the top of an active volcano, where the Thousand Mouths was set to emerge on the Material Plane. Having successfully freed their dragon god from his prison, the cultists made their way to the top of the volcano to assist the dragon in his quest to drive the Thousand Mouths back and save the world. Instead of fighting the Thousand Mouths directly (which I envisioned as an Elder God-level threat), the players were instead tasked with completing a ritual that would seal the entity in the same prison that once held their dragon god. Their dragon patron (accompanied by a second dragon who the party recruited earlier in the campaign) arrived to the fray just as the Thousand Mouths emerged from the volcano, setting up
So - how do you craft a encounter centered around a ritual exciting enough to satisfy a D&D party? You toss a LOT of obstacles in their way and force them to make some hard choices. For our ritual, the party had to drive three oversized magic nails into three locations around the edge of the volcano's crater. Once all three nails were placed into the ground, they then had to "activate" them by saying a few magic words, which would then seal the Thousand Mouths away once and for all.
The key to the ritual was that the nails all had to be in the ground before they could be activated, which left the players with several choices. The players could stick together and thus take more time to complete the ritual, or they could split up to try to get the nails into the ground and save time. They also faced a decision about whether to leave a party member at each nail site once a nail was placed - leaving a party member with each nail meant that they could activate the ritual more quickly, but it also meant that the group who went to the final nail site would be down two members for whatever monster or obstacle they faced.
Although the Thousand Mouths was mostly distracted by the party's dragon patron, the entity still had a presence during the final encounter. Each nail site was guarded by some sort of mouth-themed monster, and the Thousand Mouths would occasionally send additional monsters to hinder the party as they raced around the volcano's edge. Each time a nail was driven into the ground, the entire party also had to overcome some sort of obstacle, such as poisonous smoke bellowing from the volcano or the Thousand Mouths turning the ground into a pile of gummy flesh and teeth that ripped into the party's legs and feet.
In order to show how their previous decisions had made an impact on the final boss fight, I let the party roll to determine how successful they were in avoiding the Thousand Mouths' attention as they raced around the volcano. Instead of Stealth checks, the party rolled two d20s to represent how effective their dragon allies were in distracting the Thousand Mouths. If one of the dice had a 13 or higher, the dragons kept the entity's attention - however, a lower roll meant that a monster appeared in the party's path. Ultimately, it was one of those random monsters (a re-skinned Allip) that killed off the party's Rogue as she raced to meet her two comrades at the final nail site.0comments
Once the ritual was completed, the players had one final obstacle. With most of their spell slots and resources depleted, they found themselves "swallowed" up by three mouths who appeared around them and launched themselves at their dragon god. The players (who had split up) had to collectively destroy 8 teeth inside the mouths to cause them to disappear and save the dragon. Ultimately, the party succeeded only because the cleric had saved her third level spell slot and cast Spirit Guardians inside one of the mouths, dealing massive damage to three of the teeth in the nick of time.
The campaign ended with the players saving the world from an all-powerful threat despite being only Level 6. They endured a prolonged gauntlet with no time to rest in the process, but all of the players felt that the campaign ended on a high note. Don't be afraid to get creative when you're building your final boss battle. A straight-up fight is good from time to time, but players tend to excel when challenged with non-traditional threats that reward players for having non-combat skills.
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