Last Updated on January 22, 2023
It’s not a stretch to say that Souls games, like the recently released Elden Ring, have become a staple of the fantasy genre.
The grueling battles and often terrifying creatures harken back to the early days of Dungeons & Dragons when you could easily be expected to roll up a dozen characters before you made it to the end of a campaign.
Naturally, this kind of brutality is inspiring for a DM who loves to make their players sweat from session to session. I initially wanted to be able to pull some big bosses from Elden Ring over and give them fully fleshed-out stat blocks.
Then I realized something important.
It’s not just about making fights difficult, it’s about making them memorable.
Sure, the intense difficulty of a Souls-like experience is a huge draw. Defeating a full-grown fallingstar beast is a challenge that isn’t for the faint of heart.
Still, there has to be something more than just a healthy dose of masochism that keeps us coming back to these games. Why else would we let the red lettering of “YOU DIED” be burned into our retinas?
I realized that the real draw, at least for me, is the challenge. Each dungeon, each terrifying creature, each epic boss battle presents a puzzle to the player.
It’s the reward of conquering that puzzle and doing a little bit better each time that gives us that sweet, sweet rush of serotonin.
This article is dedicated to bringing the challenge of a Souls game to your table, not just the creatures.
What Makes a Difficult Monster?
While both games are incredible fantasy epics, there is a big difference in the combat between D&D and Dark Souls.
In 5e especially, one of the most important aspects of any combat encounter is action economy. On the other hand, since combat can happen in real time, a game like Elden Ring is all about precision timing.
In 5e, a round is split up into the turn of each character involved in the combat.
This turn-based combat makes engagement straightforward and prevents scenarios where players are shouting over each other to try and do something cool.
This sort of gameplay is definitely efficient for tabletop play, but it makes it difficult to invoke the sense of urgency that a fight with a Runebear inspires.
Within the constraints of 5e’s combat system, we make monsters more difficult by giving them access to more of the action economy.
If there are four PCs and one dragon, those players would typically be able to overwhelm the dragon.
Instead, we give the dragon lair actions, legendary actions, and even legendary resistances that render the players’ actions useless.
It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but a challenging creature in 5e is hard to hit, has a lot of hit points, and can act often.
Throw in the fact that their actions have lasting or recurring effects, and you’ve got a creature that’s hard to take down.
Still, bring a small horde of abyssal chickens, and you can take down Tiamat herself by just acting more frequently than she can.
Conversely, in a Souls game, your most challenging creatures are going to have moves that are difficult to counter or evade. Again, this is an oversimplification, but it’s what the combat system really boils down to.
The concept that doesn’t often make it into D&D is that of telegraphed moves. This isn’t even a concept that’s unique to uber-challenging games like Elden Ring either.
Even Mario’s goombas have telegraphed moves that require precise timing to counter. Granted, it’s a lot easier to measure the walking pace of a goomba and jump on their head.
So, we have a few obstacles to overcome. We need to find a way to make timing matter more, and we need to telegraph moves so that our players can respond accordingly.
Fast-Paced Boss Battles
A challenging monster should have everyone on their toes, especially if it’s supposed to be the kind of fast-paced creature we’d expect to encounter in Elden Ring.
The normal pace of combat doesn’t really do that, so we’ll need to change how our encounters work.
Of course, we don’t want to completely redesign 5e’s combat system, so I’m going to introduce a few mechanics for boss battles.
I am definitely guilty of sitting through several combats and not paying attention at all until it’s my character’s turn to act. It’s an easy habit to fall into since reactions are often a relatively small part of combat.
Pay attention to your spot in the initiative count and any creatures that are close enough for an opportunity attack, and you’re good to go.
If we want to telegraph the boss’s moves, we’ll have to have them act in some sort of pattern. This way, our eagle-eyed players will quickly learn when a devastating blow is headed their way.
This means that we, at very least, need our bosses to act more frequently. There are a lot of problems that can come from that, mainly the fact that our characters would start taking a lot of damage.
In the next few sections, we’re going to flesh out a path that allows bosses to act frequently and “warn” players about their stronger attacks while still giving our players a shot of making it out alive.
Changing How Bosses Act
Legendary actions really are the 5e way of making monsters feel like they’re actually involved in the fight.
Being able to act on the end of multiple PCs’ turns almost eliminates the picture of a terrifying monster that, for some reason, patiently waits for several heroes to hit it before doing anything.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not enough.
In just about every fantasy video game I’ve played, the hardest monsters have fast, nearly undodgeable moves that require me to really pay attention. It’s about pattern recognition and reacting accordingly.
With a D&D creature, they hit the hardest when it’s their turn and then follow up with smaller legendary action attacks just to keep the combat flowing smoothly.
I want to shake this up by removing big bads from the initiative entirely.
Well, at least removing them from how we normally think of initiative.
Instead of them having a turn and then smaller actions throughout a round, I want them to be able to continuously act and gear up for their larger actions.
Most legendary creatures, especially more challenging ones, tend to have multiple attacks with one of them being clearly stronger.
Sometimes these even have a refresh rate, like a dragon’s breath attack, meaning they have to wait several turns before they can use the ability.
To have our big bads act more frequently, we want them to focus on their lighter attacks, be that a bite, tail attack, sword, or whatever fits for the creature.
This gives them something to continuously do from turn to turn as they prepare to unleash their more devastating blows.
I really want to make this applicable to any creature because if I were to completely rework every monster, that would take an insane amount of time.
Also, more creatures would come out, and that doesn’t even account for homebrew creatures.
This method is a variant way to run special combat encounters, so DMs can incorporate it at their own discretion.
Let’s be honest, it would be awesome if big creatures had the kind of sequenced yet random fighting style that an Elden Ring boss had, but that requires a lot more change to 5e’s formula.
This way, we just have a refreshing take on combat that doesn’t require an entirely new set of rules.
These rules can be used to turn a legendary creature into a “Boss” level encounter. The following changes can quickly heighten the urgency of an encounter and allow for more dynamic combat experience.
A “Boss” is removed from the initiative count. It instead acts fluidly throughout each round, attempting to land a series of hits that plays out like a combo or charge up for a devastating blow.
Essentially, our bosses are more like an environmental hazard than a typical creature.
The boss’s actions are split into a few new categories:
- Light Actions – These are your standard actions that would normally be a part of a multiattack, such as a bite or sword attack.
- Multiattack – (X turns) A boss may attempt to land X (up to three) light actions in a row. However, if they are successfully evaded or countered, their multiattack stops. A boss only spends charges equal to the amount of attacks they are able to attempt.
- Medium Actions – (2-4 turns) Medium actions are stronger and generally have a wider or more lasting impact. This includes many aura effects and most legendary actions that would cost more than 1 action to perform.
- Heavy Actions – (8-10 turns) Heavy actions would typically have a recharge rate in a normal 5e stat block. These are often signature moves with large impacts that should be avoided at all costs.
- Reactions – Bosses can no longer make opportunity attacks, but they can use any other reactions available to them as normal (once per round of combat).
- Standard Actions – A creature can still take any standard actions (Help, Dodge, Disengage, etc.) as if it were a light action.
Bosses can now attack after every creature in the initiative order but must wait a certain number of turns before they can use their larger attacks. This works much like building up a charge.
After every light action, a boss adds 1 to their charge. A boss can also forego an action to add 2 to their charge. Using a medium or heavy action depletes their charge accordingly.
Here is a brief example:
A dragon takes a light action after three players’ turns and then does nothing after the next player’s turn. Its charge is now up to 5, so it takes a medium action that costs 4 charges, its Frightful Presence action. It is now back to 1 charge.
Bosses can have several medium and/or heavy actions. It’s suggested that their costs be relative to their strength and impact.
This setup allows for bosses to attack frequently and create a streak that culminates in a massive attack.
Mechanically, this doesn’t even play out much differently than a fight with a normal legendary creature. They still get to attack just about as often, but this sets us up for the next piece of the puzzle.
One thing that changes because of this is our creature’s movement. If they don’t have their own turn, they still need some way to move.
The simple solution is that we can spread their movement speed out over each round. Whenever they take an action, they can also move.
It’s just like how we can split our movement up throughout our turn but spread it over a bit of a longer period of time.
Below is our revised Adult Red Dragon stat block.
You’ll notice that the block is just split into actions and legendary actions. This is because light, medium, and heavy actions are really terms that are helpful for design. Using the normal format makes it a bit more readable.
We’ve already touched on this concept a bit, but I think that one of the most important aspects of a fight with a Souls creature is the way that they warn you about what they’re about to do.
Just paying attention to simple patterns lets you figure out when you need to dodge a massive attack.
If there’s one thing I definitely want to accomplish in this article, it’s giving you, as the DM, a way to telegraph your monsters’ moves. There are a lot of ways to do this, but it boils down to two large elements.
The most important piece of this setup is that you describe what the creature does. Instead of “The dragon makes a bite attack against Bilrin, does a 24 hit?” you have the ability to paint a picture, to draw in your players.
“The dragon lunges forward at Bilrin with its mouth wide,” is not complicated at all, but it already gives us more of a feel for what’s happening.
Being descriptive allows you to drop little tells into your narration. Perhaps the dragon’s chest starts glowing red before it lets out a breath of fire. Maybe its wings unfurl two turns before it makes its wing attack.
That brings us to the next piece, patterns. Much like a Mortal Kombat combo move, we show what the creature is about to do by creating recognizable patterns.
You can be as simple or as complex as you want with this as long as you’re doing something recognizable for your players.
For a dragon’s wing attack, which I would say is easily a medium action, we might just say that they don’t use their claws the two turns preceding it.
They might suddenly stop acting for several turns before they unleash their breath weapon.
Working these patterns together is excellent, and it gives our more astute players something to pay attention to and figure out. It’s almost like including a riddle in the midst of a fight.
Of course, you should know what aspects of the game your players enjoy.
If solving puzzles really isn’t their gig, you can always make it more obvious by giving a bit of exposition at the top of the initiative count. “The dragon rears up on its back claws as its chest begins to glow a fiery red.”
If your big bad is a spellcaster, something like a lich or a powerful demon, you might just see them begin to cast their spell a few turns before they actually unleash it.
We already have the use of somatic, verbal, and material elements; we might as well use them to create tension.
The whole point of this show-and-tell act is that you prepare your players for what is to come.
A huge piece of making your monsters even more terrifying is giving your players the ability to do something about it. In a Souls game, this often comes from a mix of countering and evading oncoming attacks.
If we can introduce a system for that, we’ll not only give our players more agency – we’ll be giving them more reason to pay attention to what’s going on.
We could introduce these as new reactions to the game, just implementing an entirely new system.
This has the potential to be really exciting, but admittedly, it adds a lot of complexity to the game, especially if our monsters are guaranteed to attack every turn.
Now, instead of a normal turn of combat being confined to a character taking an action and moving, we have a lot more going on.
Player takes their action and moves, the monster makes an attack, and finally a player responds with a reaction. That’s a lot of dice being rolled in a single turn.
The solution is simple and elegant: we don’t make bosses roll to attack.
We’re already treating these epic creatures as if they were environmental hazards; why not take that to the next level?
Instead of the monster making an attack roll, its attack will play out more like an AOE effect with a certain radius of impact that requires characters to make saving throws.
These “area attacks” make a lot of sense from an in-game standpoint as well.
Your armor that’s made to protect you from swords and maces isn’t going to do much at all against the enormous weapons of a storm giant or the sweeping claws of a dragon.
Plus, legendary creatures tend to be either (a.) size Large or larger or (b.) powerful spellcasters. The attacks of either category are just more likely to affect areas than specific individuals.
To go back to the dragon example once more, a sweeping claw isn’t going to perfectly hit just one gnome; it’s going to swipe out and hit anything along a certain path.
You can almost picture the dragon’s claw attack like a cone spell with the origin being the dragon’s shoulder and the distance being the length of the dragon’s arm.
With these AOE-style attacks, we can simply set the save DC based on the ability the creature would’ve used to make the attack.
Something like 10 + ability score modifier + proficiency bonus to set the DC means we end up with a whopping 21 DC Strength save for a dragon’s claw attack, but that’s not much different than a dragon making an attack with a +11 to hit.
If an attack, such as a breath weapon, would already have a DC and range of impact, congratulations, you don’t have to modify anything.
This arrangement for our boss’s attacks means we can finally introduce the evasion mechanic.
We’re keeping it simple but still giving space for it to be exciting and impactful. This is a reaction that you’ll want to use if you’re about to get whacked by any incoming hit.
New Evasion Reaction
When you are within range of an incoming attack, you may use your reaction to move up to half of your movement speed.
On your next two turns, your movement speed is reduced by the amount you move with this reaction.
This gives our players a relatively simple way to avoid some attacks but at the cost of not being able to move as easily on the next turn.
Reacting too soon may mean not being able to get out of the way of more dangerous attacks.
Sample Boss Fight
Since I’ve used the example of a dragon quite a lot and since this is Dungeons and Dragons, I figured I’d give you a brief playthrough of what this looks like when it’s all put together.
Our bard has just failed a persuasion roll against an adult red dragon, and the dragon has had quite enough of the party’s fooling around.
It lets out an incredible roar and says, “Leave now or face your peril.” The party stands at the ready, draws their weapons, and we roll initiative.
- Rouge the Rogue – 19
- Beard the Bard – 16
- Bart the Barbarian – 12
- Art the Artificer/Fighter – 10
- Remi the Wizard – 5
After Rouge takes their turn, the dragon makes a claw attack. With Bart and Beard in range, Bart uses the Evade reaction to leap out of the way while Beard ends up making a successful save.
On Beards’ turn, he attacks and then uses his movement to get away, leaving no one in range of the dragon’s next attack.
The dragon uses a bit of its walking speed to get Art and Rouge within range of its tail attack. Rouge manages to save while Art takes the full brunt of the damage.
Bart charges forward and makes a couple attacks with his Dragonslayer, dealing a significant bit of damage. The dragon then unfurls its wings and leaps 20 feet into the air but does nothing else.
If you’re keeping track, the dragon now has four charges and has just made a change that’s indicating it might be about to do something.
The wing attack isn’t a very deadly move, so we don’t need to prep our characters for it too many turns in advance.
After Art casts Wall of Stone to restrict the dragon’s movement, the dragon expends its charges to launch a wing attack, and any characters still within range make their saves accordingly.
After Remi’s turn and throughout the next round of combat, the dragon only makes regular actions, mostly attacks, but a frightful presence is thrown in there as well.
Then, at the start of the 3rd round (the dragon has 6 charges) the dragon lets out a roar, and its chest begins to glow. It makes two more attacks after Rouge’s and Beard’s turn with its chest glowing brighter each turn.
Then, after Bart’s turn, the dragon inhales deeply, and it almost feels as if the heat has been sucked out of the cave.
From the back of its throat you can see what looks like magma bubbling. And then… nothing, it’s Art’s turn.
However, we now have 10 charges, more than enough to let out the breath weapon.
Art must now figure out how to protect his allies from the terrible impending attack.
Should he create another structure, attempt to paralyze or restrain the dragon somehow, use a Battle Master Maneuver to move his allies around, or something else entirely?
It’s a tough decision, but he at least knows that a decision must be made.
With all of these aspects put together, we have a really exciting way to embellish our big boss battles.
It certainly isn’t something you need to do for every single combat encounter, but having one or two of these will certainly make for a memorable experience.
A happy side effect of our bosses telegraphing their moves and acting outside of the initiative count is that they are now much easier to run since they practically come with a formula.
On top of that, our players really get a unique, Souls-like experience where they have to pay attention to the boss’s moves and set themselves up to evade attacks accordingly.
I hope you enjoy this little mechanical upgrade, and stay tuned for more ways to spice up your gameplay.
As always, happy adventuring.
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As a kid, I was often told to get my head out of the clouds and to stop living in a fantasy world. That never really jived with me, so I decided to make a living out of games, stories, and all sorts of fantastical works. Now, as an adult, I aspire to remind people that sometimes a little bit of fantasy is all you need when life gets to be too much.