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  • Writer's pictureAdrian Ihle

Boss Design

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

Keeping my design goals in mind I read through Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft for its strong portfolio of classic D&D style villains, as well as several classic myths from various mythologies, and researched iconic villains in popular media. I found two common themes with a solid and adaptable premise, divine punishment for hubris and malicious twists of desires. Duchess Saidra d'Honaire and Ankhtepot from Ravenloft are both excellent examples of the former, and the Jinn, Faust, or any deal made with Loki from Mythology often takes the shape of the latter.

As a key part of making an adaptable module, it was key to make an equally adaptable boss give the Dungeon Master tools to control the encounter as they wish, more than an enemy. Similarly, I wanted the boss to be able to have a presence even if the player characters never directly fight or physically encounter them. Giving the Dungeon Master the option to face the boss, without losing significant thematic substance became a strong guiding principle for this module as a way of giving options. This would make it easier to make memorable moments across multiple paths.

Diving back into research I looked back at previous encounters I had run and my associated notes and played some test parties through encounters with similar mechanics to this. My key focus was to identify ways to project a boss' presence around the dungeon environment, as well as identifying reasons or logical means to restrict my boss creature from wandering. This led me to focus on creating a boss that has a unique description and primarily has area of effect abilities and controls minions. This would allow the boss to assert itself without being directly present. Similarly, it is important to give the module areas where it would be natural to not encounter the boss.

In the end, I chose to take a classic D&D dragon lair with a kobold cohort and add a twist in terms of the resident dragon. Zandafrax is a cursed and disfigured dragon now too massive to comfortably fit in most of its lair. Around it buzzes a kobold clan to fill the gaps, maintain traps and drive the players around the dungeon. Taking inspiration from sources including Envy from Full Metal Alchemist, the classic hydra, and the Bøyd myth of my home county, Zandafrax has regenerative powers, a rhyme themed curse, and a bit of a body horror flair to it.

Appearing only as a vaguely dragon-shaped mass of writhing faces, Zandafrax leaves a strong first impression and quickly communicates this is not a traditional dragon encounter. While retaining many classic dragon abilities, some abilities are twisted. Their breath weapon summons demons for example, instead of frightful presence has a large aura that forces characters to speak in rhymes or take damage, and anytime they take damage they regenerate health but gain an extra tumor of a writhing face. All of these combine to create a very unique encounter, with flexible tools for the dungeon master.

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