Home >Gamemastering >Other Rule Systems >

Climactic Encounters

“The wonderful beasts that lurk just under the waves, just beyond the sands, or high above in the clouds. We watch and learn from them, for they have learned to coexist with this harsh world far better than we have.” – Jace Kinnith, Anthropologist Explorer Magical beasts are a diverse group of creatures, ranging from a glowing frog to a chaotic teleportation spike hound. As such, trying to group them together does not do the “genre” justice.

Magical beasts are often a product of their habitats, their interactions with other groups and communities, or the results of events gone by.

Outside of the realm of fantasy, magical beasts occupy much of the same space as cryptids and folk legend, creatures that exist outside of the public eye and are often forces of nature and mystery. Inside a fantasy setting, these folk legends can still remain legend, if magical beasts are scarce or avoid interactions with intelligent populations, or can be known fact in a setting that has much higher contact and traffic with such creatures.

Climate, habitat, and ecosystems are a fun and useful tool to leverage when world building. What lives near a volcano, or in the hottest deserts, or the coldest of tundras? While the answer might seem obvious, things that can survive and thrive are what will make their home in any given environment. This is the same for animals as it is magical animals, and many of the creatures in this book are designed around being from somewhere specific or in a certain habitat.

The rules here use materials from the updated Spheres of Power system of magic found in Ultimate Spheres of Power, as well as materials from Spheres of Might, Champions of the Spheres, and other Drop Dead Studio supplement products. Classes, class features, and spheres from these sources are not marked.

Magical Beasts of the Spheres

This section contains advice, worldbuilding tools, and GM resources when creating games, building stories, and preparing encounters with magical beasts.

Climactic Encounters

Popular in recent culture from the Monster Hunter franchise, but a consistent, solid trope across storytelling, mythology, and videogames, dynamic fights with massive and formidable beasts are sometimes difficult to execute in tabletop, due to various restrictions that may be present in the system.

Some examples of this type of cinematic fight includes examples such as the many of the labors of Hercules, Sigurd and the dragon Gram, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Devil May Cry, Shadow of the Colossus.

In the core rules, action economy is one of the most valuable resources and creating an encounter around a single monster is difficult. This section will introduce some loose guidelines and recommendations when creating a solo monster or boss encounter. This book does not provide these options in spades, and is more a help section on what to think about during encounter design with some examples.

What Are Climactic Encounters?

A climactic encounter is not about giving your big boss monster more damage. It is about giving your boss monster more tools and options that complement their normal abilities without just doubling down. Much like the classic 4 class party in tabletop with a fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard, many creatures mechanically fall into one of those archetypes. A fighter will be good at dealing damage and being “in the fray”, but may lack the mobility of a rogue, or the utility and problem solving of a caster (ex. a cleric or wizard). A climactic encounter is about giving a boss (or encounter) tools to cover for their weaknesses.

This advice and tools in this section go beyond conventional “boss building” advice, such as increasing maximum hit points, granting immunities, or other passive and number focused benefits to beef up a solo encounter so that it does not get obliterated by the players.

This section does not address how to evaluate the Challenge Rating (“CR”) adjustment of a climactic encounter. This game is heavily math-dependent and these tools and resources are meant for encounter creation that go beyond the regularly allotted resources a creature or encounter would have.

The three approaches this section will present are powerful actions, arena actions, and specialized initiatives (collectively “boss actions”). Powerful actions and arena actions should be a familiar space to those who have played various editions of tabletop games as a way those systems provided their larger boss monsters with tools to surmount the action economy issue.

Specialized initiatives will be a more unique approach that encourages separating ability sets.

Our Good Friend the Behir: For this section on climactic encounters, we’ll examine the behir, a large, snakelike dragonoid that usually has some electricity thematics, of which a spheres-adapted behir can be found in this bestiary. We can consider the behir to be a “fighter” type. A behir does not have issues biting or trampling its foes, or using its breath weapon.

Instead, a behir is challenged when overwhelmed, trapped, or outmaneuvered. As such, examining what tools you can give a behir to “round them out”, as opposed to extra attacks, more damage, or higher numbers.

Powerful Actions

A powerful action is a one-time emergency button, stylish flourish, or situational action that is thematically tied to an individual creature depending on the circumstances. Powerful actions are meant to help avoid the pitfalls of a boss encounter.

Powerful actions should generally be usable only once per fight, but can be individually stronger than an arena action or the actions available during a specialized initiative.

When granting a creature a powerful action, it should be something that helps that monster get out of a bad situation, reposition themselves, momentarily press the advantage, or recover.

This is meant to avoid the “Giant gets dropped into a create pit spell” problem, where an entire boss encounter is not invalidated by a single failed save or inconvenient position. Powerful actions should be looking to provide dynamic opportunity based on who or what the creature is, what it can do within its normal capacities, and what it needs help with. As a general overview:

  • Any boss type could receive a powerful action that mitigates (or negates) a powerful attack or grants a reroll (or success) against a deadly saving throw.
  • Fighter types could receive powerful actions that help them “push through”, maneuver the battlefield, or quickly heal. Fighter types will be best assisted by a powerful action that helps them stay in the fight.
  • Rogue types could receive powerful actions that let them vanish, escape, or “set up” their subsequent turn. Rogue types will be best assisted by a powerful action that helps them approach the fight “their way”.
  • Caster types could receive powerful actions that help protect them, avoid being overrun, or squeeze a little something extra out of an ongoing effect. Caster types will be best assisted by a powerful action that prevents them from being pinned down.

Which powerful actions a particular enemy receives is entirely a case by case basis. A stealthy, rogue-like vampire could be granted a powerful action that ends all nearby bleed effects to heal a large amount or a disorienting stare attack, whereas a giant wizard could use its ancestry to uncharacteristically burst out of a tight spot.

Powerful Action Economy and DCs: Powerful actions can have an action type, or can be a non-action (or triggered ability), depending on the circumstances and what it does. Most powerful actions cannot be used while stunned, paralyzed, or otherwise denied of actions, unless they are intended to allow the creature to do so.

Powerful actions should generally not call for a saving throw.

If a saving throw is necessary, use the creature’s ability DC if the powerful action is based on an ability it possesses, such as a dragon’s breath weapon, or a martial practitioner’s Gladiator sphere abilities. If the powerful action is not based on one of the creature’s regular abilities, the DC should be equal to 10 + 1/2 the boss’s Hit Dice + the boss’s highest ability score modifier. If a powerful action is based on a skill check, the powerful action should not grant a higher bonus to that skill check than its normal bonus + 20 (as though it rolled a natural 20 on the die) + 1/2 the boss’s Hit Dice. GMs should take the time to evaluate if these numbers seem fair to their players and adjust them as necessary.

Example: Looking back at the behir as our example of a fighter type, some powerful actions at the behir’s disposal, once per combat, might include:

  • Lashing Strike: As part of an attack action against a single creature, the behir can broadly lash out against everyone within reach. Compare the results of the behir’s attack roll against the creature’s AC and any miscellaneous defenses (such as miss chance), striking any creature whose AC is lower than the attack roll. Instead of taking damage, each creature other than the primary target of the behir’s attack is knocked prone.
  • Lightning Bath: The behir’s scales crackle with energy. Each creature within 30 feet must succeed at a Reflex saving throw or take the minimum damage from the behir’s breath weapon (as though each damage dice rolled a natural 1). The behir regains a number of hit points equal to the damage dealt by this ability. This powerful action is a non-action, and can be used at any time.
  • Mighty Leap: During its turn, the behir takes a powerful leap to escape or reposition. The behir moves up to twice its base speed to any location it can see. This movement does not provoke an attack of opportunity. If the behir could reach a ledge, such as the ledge of a pit or cliff, it can climb up over the ledge with this movement. This powerful action is a non-action, and can be used at any time.
  • Shake It Off: A behir is tough and durable. Whenever the behir would fail a saving throw, it can roll a second time, taking the new result if it would be beneficial. The behir may use this ability to roll a new saving throw against an effect it already failed against, even if that effect would not offer a new saving throw. This powerful action is an immediate action.

The actions here give the behir some minor healing, mobility, a “second chance” against a debilitating effect, and a minor “set up”. Although the behir could only use each of these powerful actions once during the combat, this gives our good behir friend better chances against a party of adventurers that would wander into its cave.

Arena Actions

Arena actions should provide many of the same options and serve the same purposes as powerful actions, granting an individual creature more dynamic options during an encounter.

Arena actions should be more normalized to the creature’s abilities and powers, whereas a powerful action is a strong onetime effect, and a specialized initiative’s options are consistently exercised.

Arena actions are much like powerful actions, the notable difference being that arena actions can either be recharge-based or be charge-based. When designing arena actions, it can be helpful to either specially tailor them to the creature or to that creature’s environment in the encounter, such as its actual lair or home.

Recharge-Based Arena Actions: A recharge-based arena action is similar to a powerful action, but has the ability to recharge during a fight. By adding a cooldown, similar to a dragon’s breath weapon, the ability can be used multiple times in an encounter. The recharge time should be based on the strength of the arena action and more powerful arena actions should have longer recharge times. Recharge timers can be difficult to balance, as the goal of arena actions is not to be an “ace-in-the-hole”, but to be versatile. A recharge-based ability would be more appropriate for a powerful effect that is available at a somewhat regular interval.

As an alternative to a normal recharge, a more powerful arena action with a recharge timer could require that the creature roll to have the ability recharge at all. This was a primary mechanic to a more tactical game edition of fantasy tabletop, where a more powerful enemy ability would not be reusable unless the creature successfully rolled its recharge (such as rolling a 5 or 6 to recharge the creature’s powerful slam ability). This recharge should replace the ability’s normal recharge timer.

A creature with access to recharge-based arena actions can have a combination of recharge timers and once per combat powerful actions depending on what that creature should have access to during a more dynamic encounter.

Example: Our good friend the behir, instead of its one-off powerful actions, instead has some recharge-based arena actions which have been adjusted from the powerful actions above. Some of these arena actions have recharge timers, and some do not, depending on the scope of their effect, to instead accommodate recharge timers, if the ability is one that should have a recharge timer:

  • Lashing Strike (recharge; 1d3 rounds): [same as above].
  • Lightning Bath (recharge; 1d4 rounds): [same as above].
  • Mighty Leap (recharge; 5 or 6 on 1d6): [same as above].
  • Shake It Off (once per combat): [same as above].

Charge-Based Arena Actions: A charge-based arena action is a group of related actions which are weaker than powerful actions alone, but are more consistently available. Charge-based arena actions are a suite of abilities that are usually thematically designed around the creature, and oftentimes related to that creature’s lair, hence being inspired by a certain 5th tabletop game edition’s “lair actions”.

A creature or group of enemies with charge-based arena actions use these arena actions by expending arena charges. An arena charge is a unique resource which is the cost for activating a charge-based arena action, and arena charges replenish at the start of the creature’s turn, or the group’s turn if multiple creatures can use the arena actions. The number of arena charges a creature or encounter can have access to varies, with more or less charges based on the strength of the abilities, intensity of the encounter, and other similar factors. 3 arena charges is generally a “normal” number.

Arena actions which expend charges should be proportionally powerful based on the number of charges they consume. If an arena action consumes 3 charges, it is likely as strong as a powerful action, whereas an arena action that consumes 1 charge might be a small boost to AC, an extra 5-foot step, or other minor action the creature wants regular access to. Charge-based arena actions tend to not cost actions, and are more reactionary in nature or cause an element of the battlefield to change.

A creature can use its arena actions in any combination, so long as it has available arena charges (such as using the same 1 charge option 3 times instead of separate options).

Example: Our good friend the behir has leveled up, and has access to some charge-based arena actions. The behir has 2 arena charges, which replenish at the start of its turn, which it can use to use any of the following abilities:

  • Behir Triage (1 charge): The behir’s draconic blood pulses quickly, repairing damage and sealing wounds. The behir gains 10 temporary hit points, which last until the start of its next turn. When these temporary hit points would expire, the behir is healed an amount equal to the number of temporary hit points remaining. The behir can only use this arena action at the end of its turn.
  • Renew Breath Weapon (2 charges): The behir’s throat glows brightly. The behir bypasses the normal cooldown for its breath weapon, allowing it to use its breath weapon normally.
  • Scamper (1 charge): The behir quickly repositions. The behir moves up to half its base speed; this movement does provoke attacks of opportunity. If the behir is prone, it stands up from prone as a free action.
  • Sparking Barrier (1 charge): The behir’s spines crackle with lightning. The behir gains a +2 dodge bonus to AC until the start of its next turn. While under this effect, any creature that strikes the behir with a melee attack takes 1d6 electricity damage.

Specialized Initiatives

A specialized initiative is a unique take on multiple initiatives that specifically focuses on alternate utility on a predictable interval. Specialized initiatives are the most complex option, where the initiative should offer a number of unique, synergistic abilities, whereas a powerful action is a one-time effect, and a set of arena actions are meant to provide reaction abilities.

How Multiple Initiatives Work: A specialized initiative is treated as a “real” turn for most purposes. The creature receives a full set of actions but cannot use and does not have access to any of its regular abilities while taking actions with its specialized initiative. Any effects that would occur during the creature’s turn, such as bleed damage, being on fire, a new saving throw against an ongoing spell effect, are only granted or suffered during the creature’s primary initiative (a creature with a specialized initiative only bleeds once per round). Any duration-based effects are still tied to the creature’s regular initiative and its regular duration, such that being sickened for 4 rounds would not be reduced during the specialized initiative.

A specialized initiative can either be independently rolled, using the creature’s normal initiative bonus, or be a static modifier from the creature’s rolled initiative (such as the creature’s initiative – 10). An exception to the limitations of a specialized initiative is if the creature would be magically compelled, enraged, or otherwise unable to take their specialized initiative normally. In that case, the creature may spend its turn however it wishes to comply with the condition it is under, using a combination of its specialized initiative actions and the actions available during its regular initiative.

Designing a specialized initiative can provide access to any number of effects. It can be various stances, triggered actions, or threshold actions which can occur when there are unique circumstances, or on regular intervals. It can usually be helpful, and thematic, to give a specialized initiative a fun or cool name and then design the abilities around that name, or to more heavily consider the creature’s environment as though granting them arena actions.

Where specialized initiatives shine is creating combo opportunities, and even allowing the various abilities to synergize or combo. The “Crystal Emperor’s Initiative” sample for our good friend the behir specializes around area crowd control and forced movement to push enemies into crystals littering its lair, which function as an arena hazard for the crystalline surge ability.

Example: The behir is a boss in his own right now, and has gained the specialized initiative named “Crystal Emperor’s Initiative”, which focuses on the behir’s electricity and draconic lineage while in the behir’s lair, an underground cave littered with glittering, precious stones. The behir cannot use its crystal cave emperor initiative to make normal attacks, and may only use the following abilities:

  • Crystalline Surge: As a standard action, the behir channels its electricity through the crystals in its cave. Any creature within 5 feet of the behir or any of the crystals in the cave take 4d6 electricity damage (Reflex half). Any creature that fails its saving throw against this ability is also staggered if they were pushed into a square adjacent to a crystal by the behir’s thunderous roar ability.
  • Dragon’s Presence: As a swift action, the behir gains a 30-foot fear aura until the end of its next crystal emperor initiative. Creatures in the aura’s radius are shaken (Will negates). Creatures that succeed at their saving throw are immune to this effect for 24 hours. As a standard action, the behir can suppress this aura until the start of its next crystal emperor initiative to target 1 creature who must succeed at a Will saving throw or be frightened for 1 round (Will negates).
  • Heart Current: The behir channels its electricity inward, causing the crystalline growths in its skin to harden. The behir can spend a full-round action to regain 3d8+8 hit points and DR 15/bludgeoning until the start of its next crystal emperor initiative.
  • Thunderous Roar: As a swift action, the behir roars with sparking fervor. All creatures within 100 feet are pushed back 10 feet (Fort negates). If a creature would be pushed into a space occupied by a wall or a crystal, the creature stops its movement in the adjacent space.

Climactic Encounters with Multiple Enemies

While climactic encounters are meant to be a tool for a single enemy, either as a solo encounter or when accompanied by minions or other less powerful creatures, these rules can also be used by a group of enemies, such as granting boss actions to a duo of powerful knights or a gang.

  • Powerful Actions: Assign powerful actions to each creature that should be able to use one. A powerful action can either be granted on an individual basis, such as when granting a defensive ability, or shared amongst a group and usable a single time by any of them, such as a group of enemies that each have the same way to interact with the environment (such as a remote or lever that triggers something in the environment.
  • Arena Actions: Arena actions available to multiple enemies should share arena charge. If an arena action has a limit of once per round, it can only be used once per round, not once per creature with access to the arena actions. Arena charges shared between multiple enemies reset with the highest initiative.
  • Specialized Initiatives: Specialized initiatives are difficult to distribute between multiple creatures. When trying to grant a specialized initiative between multiple creatures, consider having the abilities part of the environment or arena itself and adjust down the strength of these actions accordingly. An example would be a group of gladiators in an arena, where the arena itself has an initiative and takes actions that shift the battlefield.

Counterplay and Interactions to Climactic Encounters

A final “pillar” on how to offer more agency to players when using boss actions and other similar resources is to create additional permissions and circumstances to identify and react to the abilities. A highly recommended option is to create more depth for Knowledge checks and gathered information. For an especially complex encounter, the GM can further introduce counterplay.

Knowledge and Awareness

At the start of an encounter, a GM should reveal to their players that the encounter will be using climactic encounter rules.

This does not require revealing effects or abilities, just that the mechanics will be present.

Characters can identify boss actions using an appropriate Knowledge check. The first Knowledge check should reveal that these actions exist, and their names, plus any information normally available through a Knowledge check. Once the ability names are revealed, players can spend subsequent Knowledge checks to individually identify boss actions with a Knowledge check at the normal DC +5. GMs can adjust this Knowledge check DC or choose to reveal partial information as a manner of degrees of success.

This approach creates a sense of mystery to the fight and allows players to prioritize what information they want access to.

Counterplay and Contesting Boss Action Mechanics

Note: Not all climactic encounters need to have counterplay options as described in this section. This is another layer of complexity, and not all encounters using the climactic encounter rules that are part of this handbook need counterplay options.

For a climactic encounter with lots of moving parts, potentially even multiple specialized initiatives or a wide array of arena actions, giving characters a way to disable or workaround the abilities can help add more depth to the mechanic. Adding counterplay to boss actions should depend on the complexity of the encounter, and how many boss actions the enemy has access to, generally being reserved for “high-end” boss fights.

In the course of the fight, by identifying boss abilities, opportunities can be presented to then disable these mechanics, or identify clear “weak points”. This can be anything from outright denying an enemy’s access to a powerful action, reducing the number of arena charges or arena abilities available, removing actions from a specialized initiative, or even disabling the initiative altogether. A GM can create these opportunities by providing “physical” things to interact with, such as smashing the crystals in a behir’s cave to prevent it from channeling electricity through them, to winning over the crowd of a packed bonus vs. 1d20 + base attack bonus), or a contested “magic” check (1d20 + MSB vs. 1d20 + MSB). The circumstances of this check depend on what and how the character is attempting to disable the boss action, and what kind of boss action is being disabled.

The check required to disable a boss action should almost always be a contested roll because these checks represent the character’s might, skill, cunning, or prowess being directly pitted against the enemy’s.

A contested check should always be something both characters are capable and proficient in, within reason, and GMs should prompt what types of checks are appropriate to achieve the results a player would want. For example, it would be inappropriate to try and destroy a golem’s boss action to send a rippling shockwave through the floor with a contested Perform check.

Use degrees of success as a measure of how the contested check resolves in either character’s favor. The results of a successful contested check can impair the ability (disabling or weakening the ability for a short time) or disable the ability entirely.

Likewise, failing these contested checks can turn on the player’s character, imposing penalties, inflicting conditions, or raising the morale of others in the encounter.

Example: Some concrete examples of what each type of contested check might be used to disable something:

  • Contested ability check: In a deep, quiet forest, a contested Strength check where a barbarian attempts to break the horns off a beast. Success would deny or impair the horns, or abilities dependent on them, where failure would allow the beast to knock the barbarian prone, make an attack of opportunity, disarm the barbarian’s weapon, or sunder something in the barbarian’s possession.
  • Contested skill check: In a packed arena, a series of contested Perform checks where a bard competes with the other gladiators to win the crowd over. Success for either party wins the crowd, who grants small morale bonuses to the current arena favorite and throws food at the loser.
  • Contested martial check: The commander wants to demoralize the enemy’s leader. A contested martial check against the enemy as a show of force could lower the enemy’s morale and reduce tactical cohesion, or do the same to the commander’s allies.
  • Contested magic check: The wizard wants to override the magic in the ancient seals which empower the room’s pillars. A contested magic check against the enemy, as the magics clash, which could temporarily disable the pillars or daze the wizard, overwhelmed by the magic’s strength.
Section 15: Copyright Notice

Spheres Bestiary: Magical Beasts and Climactic Encounters, © 2021, Drop Dead Studios; Author: Steven Alpert.