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The Superboss in Dungeons and Dragons

A Boss with his Nightmare steed.
First lets start with a few definitions so you know what the difference is between a Boss and a Superboss, within the context of Dungeons and Dragons.

The Boss - A big bad monster or person that is central to the plot of a D&D game. They are typically scaled to a level or HD appropriate to the levels of the group of adventurers. Completing the adventure usually requires that you defeat the Boss in what is typically called a "Boss Fight".

eg. Strahd, Zuggtmoy, Acerarak, Vecna, etc are all bosses because they are integral to the plot.

The Superboss - An optional monster or person who is so powerful they make the regular Boss look weak in comparison, but the good news is that the Superboss is completely optional and is not integral to the plot. Superbosses are also typically insanely powerful, with the ability to one-shot a character or temporarily disable them, tonnes of hit points, and PCs really need to be on their toes to defeat one.

Note - Superbosses are not just found in D&D. You can also frequently find them in video games. Including D&D-based video games.

A Few Examples

#1. The Mummy in The Haunted Halls of Eveningstar.

So the original module HHoE is appropriate for levels 1 to 5 and contains a wide variety of monsters to fight, and half the dungeon is left blank for the DM to add whatever they want in there - typically monsters and traps which are level appropriate.

The Mummy however is ridiculously powerful in comparison to the standard fare for the dungeon. It is possible to defeat the mummy, but the party should be fully rested and come prepared for a serious fight. The Mummy is also infamous within the game as many games have ended in a party wipe, wherein the Mummy kills everyone. Hence the infamy. This is why the Mummy is a Superboss. You aren't actually meant to fight it, but if you do then you had better be prepared.

Worse, when the Mummy does appear the PCs can often be caught off guard, so it is often like you were basically ambushed by the dang thing.

#2. Flamewing in The Tower of Doom.

So Tower of Doom is an old D&D-based arcade game set in Mystara, but Flamewing is an excellent example of an optional superboss. Your main goal in the game is to defeat an Archlich named Deimos and his three lieutenants, which include a troll, a black dragon and a shadow elf.

Flamewing is the quintessential "bonus dragon" in the dungeon. They basically added it to the game because it was Dungeons and DRAGONS and they figured there needed to be at least one huge dragon in the game because the smaller dragon wasn't really much of a challenge.

In the game Flamewing has the ability to munch on characters and knock them to the ground, temporarily disabling them. Later Flamewing drops rocks on the PCs, and since this is an arcade game you are expected to insert coins if you want to revive your character. Thus Flamewing is a Superboss basically designed to suck money out of you by killing the PCs again and again. You can watch gameplay in the video below:



Did you count the number of times they died before they finally defeated Flamewing? I did not, but it was a good number of coins.

#3. The Balrog.

Okay, so it isn't a Dungeons and Dragons example, but consider the situation in the Fellowship of the Ring. They don't need to fight the Balrog. Indeed, they run away from it and only Gandalf dares to stand his ground. The goblins run away from it too. The Balrog is essentially an optional Superboss and is not important to the overall story of Lord of the Rings. Gandalf could have just as easily fallen in a chasm and showed up in the second book anyway, but Tolkien clearly thought a fight between the Balrog and Gandalf would be more interesting. Which it is.

But should you use a Superboss in such a manner in a D&D game, just for a minor point in the plot so you can shift the too powerful NPC wizard out of the picture? Probably not. Or maybe it is the only solution you can think of.

So what makes for a good Superboss?

Right from the beginning it should be pretty clear that the Superboss is optional. The PCs should be given a clear method of escape to avoid the fight if they wish to, even if ambushed. If not an ambush, the Superboss should be located in part of the dungeon/wilderness that is unnecessary to explore as part of the plot. The local goblins or whatever might even have warning signs indicating that the Superboss is in that direction. Skulls on pikes. Old dried blood and lots of it. The PCs exploring in that direction should have clear warnings that danger is ahead.

Warning or no warning? There are pros and cons to this. If the PCs go to a swamp said to be the home of a huge green dragon, the locals should probably warn them to stay away. The PCs are like "Oh, we are only going to slay the ogre. We will stay away from the dragon, don't worry!" Alternatively, going to an ancient fortress to slay an ogre and not knowing there is a dragon there makes for a nice ambush. The PCs won't be expecting it when it happens.

Side Note - What if the ogre is kicking the party's butt, they are all about to die, and suddenly the dragon shows up and eats the ogre - and captures the party for snacks later on. So then the party has to choose, just escape... or escape and try to kill the dragon? The ogre is dead after all. Killing the dragon is optional.

Whatever the boss is, the Superboss should be roughly twice as hard to defeat. Or possibly harder. Now that doesn't mean it should have double the hit points and deal double damage, that would technically be 4 times harder to defeat. Also note that this could still mean that the Superboss might still be vulnerable to instant kill spells...

Thus a Superboss should be immune to various types of spells that kill instantly. So spell immunity to a wide variety of such spells, including spells like Polymorph. Many types of dragons, demons and undead fall into these categories and thus make a good potential Superboss.

The Superboss should be resistant to both combat damage and magical damage. Magic Resistance is a given.

Multiple different types of deadly attacks. Think outside the box for this one. True, the listing in the Monster Manual lists the normal attacks for that monster, but what if the Superboss has come up with some unique attacks they can do using their surroundings or perhaps unusual spells it created?

Multiple attacks per round. So for example a dragon might do claw, claw, bite, breath weapon, an innate spell at will, and a tail attack all in one round. Some players might call foul on this. Especially if the dragon casts Haste.

No underlings. A Superboss shouldn't need underlings to fight for it. A normal Boss fight should have underlings, but a Superboss should never have them for they are merely a distraction from the main fight. So for example a Boss could have a mount, such as a Nightmare to ride (see image way at the top), but a Superboss wouldn't need a mount because they can just fly or teleport.

The Superboss might know when to leave in a hurry. You don't get to become a Superboss in the first place by taking silly risks around adventurers. A smart Superboss should know when to cut their losses and teleport out of there. Or maybe they are so close to winning they decide to take the risk. Or maybe they have a phylactery hidden somewhere and the dragon is actually a dracolich, in which case now is a good time for the DM to practice their evil laughter...

Mwahahahahahahahaa!

One last thing. A DM should never apologize for having a Superboss in their dungeon. It is optional after all and the PCs should never feel obligated to fight it (not even the Lawful Stupid PCs should feel obligated). The Superboss is there to remind PCs that there are things that are too big for them to take on, and that caution / running away is always an option. If they don't heed the warnings, that is not your fault.

The Superboss doesn't need a steed.

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