If you’re reading this article, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with Exalted Third Edition. You have recognized that the combat system is fairly complex, with flexible Initiative values determining characters’ momentum. You may have run some combat scenes for your group, and because the game isn’t built for clear-cut challenge ratings, you’ve probably been surprised at times that fights you thought would be difficult turned out to be super easy—or fights you thought would be easy turned out really challenging. You’ve had your players go up against seemingly impossible monsters listed in the corebook’s antagonist section and then realized that they were more challenged when faced by mortal soldiers. You tried to figure out why but couldn’t make sense of it. Maybe you tried to get a feel for your players’ strengths and weaknesses from storytelling experience. Or maybe you declared that the combat system was broken and quit playing the game.
In this article, I’m going to provide some tips on how to make boss battles more fun and engaging for both you and your players. When I say boss battles, I refer to climactic battles with narrative meaning, possibly leading up to the end of a story. These are supposed to be challenging players in different ways while making them feel like the powerful Exalts they’re supposed to be.
The main rule I want to highlight before getting into these tips is an unwritten one, but one that’s important to consider for Storytellers of Exalted Third Edition. When we talk about game balance in Exalted, players and Exalt types need to be balanced in isolation. A Solar Charm needs to be balanced to other Solar Charms, and a Dragon-Blooded Charm needs to be balanced to Dragon-Blooded Charms. Some of the main differences between Exalt types, apart from how much dice they can add to actions, come down to how they manage various Charm mechanics. A Solar is expected to have more dice than a Dragon-Blooded, which also means that a mechanic such as Double 9s is more powerful when used by a Solar than when it’s used by a Dragon-Blooded. A Solar can also often reroll all dice of a specific outcome, such as all 1s, while a Dragon-Blooded tends to be limited to (higher of Essence or 3) of a particular dice outcome. Then we have other things to consider, such as how many motes the Charms cost, and if they use Willpower.
There are some rules when it comes to Exalted Third Edition game design. Some of these rules are unwritten, going by the intuition of the game designer and (eventually) by the intuition of the Storyteller as they get more experience running the game. Other rules are written by the developers and handed out to system writers; these are called Charm Writing Guides and contain both information on how to construct a game mechanic, like what type of narrative fantasy and vision is appropriate, which Essence levels are appropriate for which type of effect, and so on. (The closest thing to a Charm Writing Guide you can find now is in Exigents).
There is a lot going into making appropriate and balanced game mechanics, but like I mentioned before, things are balanced somewhat in isolation. With different Exalt types having different rules that make up their mechanics, you cannot expect NPCs and antagonists to follow the same mechanical expectations as the player characters do. How powerful an effect is or how much Essence it requires is more or less irrelevant when determining what an NPC can do facing the players. Naturally, this doesn’t give you free reign to make mortals that whip out more dice than Solars—there is a narrative balance as well, since the game’s mechanics are aimed to uphold the conceptual ideas of what a character or creature is supposed to be capable of; then some common sense is needed too. But it does give you the option to design antagonists that have some unorthodox approaches to combat encounters. These types of approaches aren’t listed in the antagonist section of the corebook, because I don’t think the game developers considered them, but they are absolutely something that you can add as a Storyteller to improve your combat scenes.
Before we go into what these tips actually are, I want to point out some things that I’ve learned from running combat encounters in this game. First, you need to be able to maintain an Initiative value that allows for decisive attacks to be considered a physical threat. Second, if you’re outnumbered by your opponents, more opponents will have a chance at withering down your Initiative, and it will cost more to avoid onslaught and keeping your defenses up. Third, if your opponent is a single creature and you’re outnumbering it, the occasional boosts of Initiative it will get from its powerful attacks will likely not be enough to maintain for long enough to launch a decisive strike. In other words, combat is often defined by how much Initiative you can burn, gain, and how fast.
When I mentioned before that the players could feel more challenged by mortals than a badass monster, the reason is that multiple mortals give more options to wither the players (more attacks per round), while the monster is limited to a single attack. Two enemies are often more effective than a single enemy with a high dice pool. Yes, the player character must sometimes invest in a defense against the high dice pool, to avoid being struck, but two enemies will have two attacks that cause onslaught in addition to invoking a possible investment of defense. In other words, the more enemies you face, the more costly it becomes, even if their dice pools are lower. The same happens in reverse. If you have multiple PCs ganging up against a single monster, even a powerful monster will not be able to do much each round that can be considered threatening to the group as a whole. If it withers one PC, the others will wither it back down. If it has a high Defense and lots of health levels, it will only determine how long and tedious the fight is, but not necessarily how challenging it is.
When creating a boss battle, answer the following questions:
- What purpose does this boss serve in the story?
- What motivations do the players have for fighting this boss?
- What consequences will defeating the boss have?
- What consequences will losing to the boss have?
- What alternative approaches are available to the players other than fighting this boss?
The first question—“What purpose does this boss serve in the story?”—is the most important one. If you add an encounter just to have an encounter, the players will have no personal investment in the fight. They may think it’s a fun encounter, but it would serve no real purpose other than to be a fight. Make sure to set the stage for the boss battle. If the PCs are the heroes and this boss is the bad guy, take proper care in showing their villainy earlier in the story so that defeating them here will have greater impact.
The second question—“What motivations do the players have for fighting this boss?”—is all about engaging the players. We already know what purpose it serves, but the PCs should have their own stake in the fight. Perhaps the boss has thwarted their efforts previously or hurt someone they care about. As a Storyteller, you can direct player motivations through knowledge of PC backstories and Intimacies, and make sure to tie those into the conflict in some way.
The third question—“What consequences will defeating the boss have?”—is important to ensure that there is a point to overcoming the encounter. Will defeating the boss save the village? Will it lead to retribution by the boss’ allies? How will the narrative progress beyond this point? Even if defeating the boss leads to the conclusion to the story, that conclusion should be a vital consequence to present as an epilogue for the players. Alternatively, perhaps defeating the boss leads to complications in some way? Maybe the boss was an important figure in society and defeating them brands the PCs as outlaws. Perhaps defeating the boss throws a nation into ruin or civil war. As Storyteller, you may not know the exact details of what consequences there should be—since much could depend on the players’ actions—but you should at least consider some alternatives and make sure the consequences are satisfying, even if they present new challenges.
The fourth question—“What consequences will losing to the boss have?”—is just as important. Not every fight is a victory, even for the Exalted, and sometimes losing a boss battle presents new opportunities for stories. If the PCs survive a fight they initially lost, you could have an interesting recurring villain on your hands. It could also be a lesson in humility to the Exalts. It’s important to remember that losing a battle doesn’t mean that you lose a war, or that the story comes to a standstill. Consider all the consequences of this loss, lead the narrative in a way that presents the PCs with new motivations to perhaps challenge the boss again, and then make some alterations to the boss battle to avoid a repeat of the previous attempt. Change the circumstances and make the stakes higher.
The fifth and final question—“What alternative approaches are available to the players other than fighting this boss?”—is important to consider in Exalted games especially. Exalted are highly powerful, and players of Exalted characters are encouraged to be creative. It’s possible that the players will avoid a direct confrontation and attempt to overcome the boss using alternative methods, such as social influence. Consider the PCs’ individual powers and the players individual playstyles to the best of your ability and use that to consider alternative approaches. It’s important to not railroad the players towards a direct confrontation if they find a creative way to avoid it. Instead, reward the players for their creativity, and let them defeat the boss in their own way. If this means that you have to scrap a battle you’d looked forward to, then so be it. I’m sure the scenario got even more memorable this way, even if you’re initially disappointed with the outcome.
If the PCs go up against a single boss and you worry that the fight will be too easy, a simple way to turn up the challenge is by giving the boss a solo bonus. This is a quick and easy way to buff a lone antagonist you feel is too weak against a group. A solo bonus could be something like increasing attack pools by 2 and defense or soak ratings by 1 for each additional PC in the fight. By modifying an existing rating with a solo bonus, you can easily adapt the fight to how many PCs will be involved in it. This could help compensate for being outnumbered while keeping the boss from draining its resources too quickly in the fight. The drawback is that it’s easy to turn a boss into a grind if its increased values are simply too high for the PCs to feel like they make an impact.
Like I mentioned before, there’s no hard rule that NPCs and antagonists should follow the same mechanical patterns as PCs, because actually going against certain norms may provide more opportunities for challenging fights. Use common sense to draw the line. If you intend to give a solo bonus to a boss, perhaps reserve it for Exalted villains or inhuman bosses where there are no concrete expectations. Don’t give the solo bonus to a mortal, for example, without narrative reasons for its increase in power. If the mortal is alchemically or sorcerously enhanced, then we have a justification for a solo bonus. But a random mortal bandit lord, not so much. There are other ways to make boss battles more interesting when going up against antagonists that are expected to be weaker than a single PC, like a mortal.
While a solo bonus is intended to make a single boss more challenging, you can use legendary actions to make the boss fight both more challenging and more engaging. This is ripped straight from Dungeons & Dragons but is something that I’ve experimented with in previous Exalted boss battles to great success. Because it’s easy for a single boss to be withered down by the PCs, giving it access to legendary actions would allow it to affect the outcome of the battle regardless of its Initiative position.
In practice, a legendary action (or a lair action) is a boss action that can be used outside of the boss’ ordinary actions. You could set up these actions in two different ways: a legendary action is a free action that the boss can use at any time, or in response to a specific situation. For example, a kraken’s legendary action could be that it gets a free grapple attack because of its many tentacles; an elemental dragon’s legendary action could be that it uses its wings to disengage into the air; a tyrant lizard’s legendary action could be a mighty roar that drains Initiative. The Storyteller should give access to a set number of legendary actions that can be used to keep the players on their toes. One recommendation is to give the boss as many legendary actions each scene as it has Essence (or as there are PCs fighting it), with perhaps some conditions that can reset them.
Another alternative is more akin to a lair action. This is an action that is outside of the boss itself, such as an earthquake happening or the ceiling caving in. These types of actions should be placed in the Initiative order. Regardless of the boss’ Initiative placement, whenever a certain tick is reached, that tick’s lair action occurs, and the players must react accordingly. The boss itself should be invulnerable to the lair action for best effect.
Consider the following scenario: The PCs go up against a necromancer in the enemy’s base of operations where there is a necromantic working in place to act as a defense. There are zombies trying to dig themselves up from the ground all over the area, causing difficult terrain. Additionally, whenever the turn order reaches a certain tick, some zombies emerge, either to make a direct attack against a player or to replenish magnitude for a zombie battle group that’s also in the scene. The necromancer also has a legendary action that is triggered the first time they suffer enough damage to become incapacitated. This action means that a soul pearl is broken, and instead of incapacitating the necromancer, it restores (its Essence) in health levels. Should the necromancer kill a PC or important NPC, or reduce the Size of a battle group allied to the PCs, it restores a used-up soul pearl, resetting its legendary action.
A boss can also be given alternative resources other than motes and Willpower to make the fight a bit more unique and interesting. One type of resource is an expendable minion armor where the boss can discard minions to negate damage. This could be a way of making a mortal boss more engaging. Have them protected by a battle group of minions, and then let them call upon that battle group as a resource. Whenever the boss is directly attacked, it can negate a certain amount of damage by permanently reducing the battle group’s magnitude—represented by guards keeping a tight formation around them.
When going up against something like a First Age warstrider, the alternative resources could be represented by Essence crystals that can be tapped in place of using motes and Willpower. The warstrider could have a set amount of Essence crystals that must then recharge before they can be used again. The PCs could attempt combat gambits to strike the Essence crystals before they’re being tapped in order to deal extra damage to the warstrider.
When going up against a prince who has been possessed by a demon, the boss could have a separate Sanity tracker that they can use as a resource to empower actions when a certain situational trigger occurs, such as when being confronted by the harm they have caused under the demon’s influence. While the resource is generally more powerful than using motes or Willpower, the more of it that is being used, the more erratic and inhuman the prince becomes—until the demon takes over entirely. The PCs must try to appeal to the prince’s humanity in order to negate the opportunities for the trigger to occur, and thus fight tactically and defensively until they can help the prince defeat the demon within.
The Sanity tracker could also be used as a form of countdown rather than as a resource. When adding a countdown to your boss battle, you need to first decide what the countdown is building up to as well as how the countdown is triggered. Should it be triggered by time, and build up to something if the fight drags too long, or should it be triggered by specific situations that eventually lead to a certain outcome?
Some countdowns could be part of larger narratives, with the boss battle merely being the final phase building up to its last trigger. For example, if the boss is trying to summon a powerful demon into the world, the first countdown trigger could be that the boss managed to secure a certain relic from the PCs’ possession. The PCs then set out to find the boss, but fail to stop the second trigger, where the boss captures the mortal NPC whom they need to sacrifice for the ritual. Finally, the PCs track down the boss and intercept the summoning ritual. The third trigger could occur in battle, after the victim has been secured in the summoning circle by the boss’ minions. During the boss battle, the PCs try to prevent this from happening. Should they be unable to, the third trigger occurs, and the summoning is completed, with the powerful demon being unleashed upon the world.
This brings us to another way to make boss battles feel more cinematic and less static, and it’s something that you often see in movies and video games. Namely, a phased boss battle. If the aforementioned countdown is completed and the demon is summoned, this could move the boss battle into a new phase, where the PCs fight the demon instead of the boss—or the demon alongside the boss. Some bosses may have different phases as well, such as a true form that is revealed after a certain trigger is met, or after the PCs defeat the initial form.
Once a boss battle switches into a new phase, something drastic should have changed that turns the tide of battle. It could mean that the boss has powered up into a more dangerous form, such as the evil necromancer rising as a powerful lich after being initially defeated. The new form should be like fighting a new boss, with a new set of powers. If the PCs are tired from using up too many resources against the first form, they may have to retreat and recover before facing the boss again in a new place and under new conditions.
A combat phase can also be environmental, with the fight moving from one location to another. Perhaps the boss battle starts out as a naval combat, with the second phase being a duel atop a sinking ship—perhaps even followed by a third phase where the sinking ship is swallowed by a massive sea creature, and you must chase the boss down within the roiling intestines of the beast as it descends into the ocean depths. Perhaps you find yourself in a situation where you and the boss must temporarily work together to get back up to the surface, or to fight off the parasitic creatures within the belly of the beast.
There are endless ways to design an engaging boss battle, and if you’re a creative Storyteller, don’t let yourself be limited by the extent of Exalted Third Edition mechanics. The antagonists in this game are all written using standard mechanics, and many of those antagonists come up short in some way or another. If you want to break free from disappointing encounters, refer to these antagonists as templates for your own custom designs. If you experiment with the mechanics and introduce something new and unique, the players won’t see it coming, and there’s a good chance that they will engage with the encounters in a different way.
But also remember that a boss fight should be the culmination or the climax of a narrative—don’t turn every encounter into a boss fight. If you add some standard encounters along the way, having the rare boss fight as a special encounter will make it much more memorable and enjoyable. Exalted is a game where the heroes are larger than life, and those heroes deserve great villains worthy of your time and attention.