How to run Dark souls-esque bosses?



[Fig. 1, pretty much this.]

Hey my people, I’m planning on running an old-school feeling ICRPG game in the near future for some people who haven’t played RPGs before. Now before you do a double-take at the title and this info hear me out, I’m trying to give them the classic experience of being able to die during a game for a few reasons:

  • ICRPG is really easy to make a new character in, so its less punishing for them to die than something like ~shudder~ Pathfinder (10 hours for my first character, people, no instruction).
  • On top of that, I never have the chance to be the classic mean GM. I won’t go out of my way to kill them, but I will NOT hesitate or roll behind a screen.

I’ll warm them up to it for a few sessions, punish some dumb behavior without it meaning death, but by the time they enter those boss rooms I want them to be stressed, scared and thinking about their character, not their dice.

Now, souls bosses are nasty to fight for anyone that played the games, they combo, team up, and wreck shop, but CAN be beat, and when you do it feels amazing. I want them to earn that feeling, with a casualty or 2 along the way they don’t have to feel too bad about because they can make a new character soon.

I’ve always held back because I don’t want people quitting, but this time I’m confident I won’t lose them because their possibility of death is the stage I’m setting. So can anyone tell me how to run this thing right?

Altered State Psychic "problem"

Here are some quick thoughts.

  • If this is a one or two-shot, I’d consider pregens to get folks into the action (or back into the action) as quickly as possible. Though, I recognize that making a character is super fast.
  • For bosses that do devastating attacks (high damage spikes, save or die, or save or drop), I generally telegraph those moves first, maybe killing an NPC or destroying a large piece of terrain first, so players can appreciate the danger they are in before it affects them. This method heightens tension AND provides fair warning.
  • And speaking of fair warning, make sure all players know at the outset that death is a real possibility and that they may want to have a backup character in mind.
  • I generally find that enemies who are glass cannons give you the best bang for your buck over monsters that have tons of hit points. If it turns into tank and spank, then it’s just gonna get boring.
  • And on that note, make sure you incorporate movement for your bosses, and make sure it’s epic (tunneling, flying so high in the sky players lose sight, etc.). It also helps to have an epic attack follow an epic move (eg, the dragon disappears up into the sky, then there’s a tense moment or two waiting on it to plunge back down before it unleashes hell on someone).
  • And then, as you say, don’t hold back. If you think you might, run an monster AI script and follow it to the letter, or have a buddy do monster mind.
  • Finally, don’t forget to give your characters purpose — even if it’s just monster hunters. There’s nothing worse than feeling like the game is just shock value without it being connected to a deeper story.

Okay, those are my two cents. I’m sure the rest of the shield wall will have better advice as well.


Are you looking for advice on running a high-mortality game or on the actual boss fights?

If the latter, I think the trick might be in copying the underlying design rather than the actual behavior of ds bosses. For example: fighting a DS boss is about learning its movement pattern (like which attacks do magic or area damage). This is difficult to copy in a trpg, especially if you don’t expect the players to fight the boss multiple times. So a better alternative might be to make sure all attacks are thematically consistent. This gives the players a chance to anticipate the behavior, without having multiple experiences of a scripted move set. So a torch knight might use the torch as a club, use it to breathe fire, swallow the fire to make the room pitch black and make a stealth attack, etc.

Other tips:

  • high damage output
  • more than one action
  • give one strength, have them constantly move to exploit this to their advantage (like good range, poor melee, constantly retreating and seeking elevation)
  • give one game-changer ability (like changing tn, introducing new terrain or drinking a potion of invulnerability)
  • when you think it’s difficult enough, it’s probably still too easy


The dark souls board game has a pretty neat deck of cards mechanic for their boss fights that might be worth looking into. (like 3+ cards)

Each card has an action, target, and movement and are randomly shuffled together and then each GM turn you could reveal the top card to the players and read it out loud.

Once the deck is depleted you can do about 3 things

1.) cycle through the deck in the same order so the players can learn the boss’ attack pattern

2.) shuffle the deck and start a new cycle

3.) have a special card in the deck that when drawn causes the deck to shuffle automatically

Wish you luck my friend


This is like my holy grail, so thanks for asking. I’m excited to see what input you receive.

I’ll try my hand at an answer, but most likely I’ll just end up posing more questions.

To me, a dark souls boss is about learning a pattern of behavior. For that I think something like Hank’s monster AI video could do the trick.

Dark souls is also brutally unforgiving, and for that I think you just need to give the boss a huge damage bonus. They also commonly have phases, so try breaking the fight into a few different phases where the floor collapses, or the boss becomes enraged or something. Angry DM has some good stuff to say about that.

The problem that I always run into is that dark souls combat is so much about timing, space, and resource management (in terms of stamina and estus flasks). I’ve flirted with the idea of putting in stamina and a grid into the game to get that feeling, but ultimately you’re making things more board gamey.

I think the best recommendation I can give is design an AI system that includes different phases. Make the monster attacks lethal, but maybe pull back a little on the attack bonus so it doesn’t hit all the time. Describe to the players how they are just barely dodging. Play up the scale and tension. So much of dark souls is that feeling of “holy crap, I can’t believe I’m fighting this huge thing!!”

Last suggestion: perhaps to get that tactical feeling in, provide some kind of finite healing resource (a healing well that only had 6 charges or something). Force the players to work together and fulfill some condition to actually damage the boss, like in destiny or WoW where you need to disable a shield or activate a super weapon in order to damage the boss. That could lead to a good ebb and flow that may capture some of the dark souls magic.

Report back and tell us how it goes!


So many replies! lemme hit what i can.

Great idea, Souls does that all the time, and I think everyone will appreciate that idea of knowing how lethal it can be.

This seems quite poignant.

More the latter, but if anyone wants to add ideas for keeping that fair, I’d love to hear it.

great ideas here.

I actually backed that and plan on using some of the minis for NPCs and bosses. I’ll say the game itself uses it in an interesting way as you CAN memorize the pattern until they get bloodied and shake up the stack. I think that’s a good idea as well so I’m not the one deciding what they do, the “AI” is. (Kingdom death, which i’m also pilfering for monsters, uses the same system for monster AI)

Great idea and point to have. i don’t want it just hard, i want them to speak the language of the boss by the time they kill it and learn from their mistakes.

Yeah, this is a good concept. Players won’t know that part and i don’t guarantee death all the time.

Me too actually, for my own unrelated (and hopefully kickstarted) game. I’m keeping it as a resource that makes up both your actions and health. That one’s a long way off but it’s a helluva lot closer to what i want it to feel like than the last iteration. DM me if you want to share any of your notes on stamina!

So in short,

  • Telegraph attacks that do high damage, and make them earn their stupid, stupid deaths
  • AI, maybe with cards, maybe just thematically consistent so they can guess what will happen. make patterns for them to learn. Let them learn the pattern, don’t over-design.
  • Hard for vidya gaems doesn’t always translate to tabletop (repetition isn’t an option for boss fights except in rare circumstances). they need to learn in the moment, so ridiculous stats just ends it faster rather than just providing a threat. glass cannons and lesser “to hit” stats are key while high damage makes it feel like they got hit hard and don’t want that to happen again.

Great response guys. I appreciate it.




So, a little update for everyone; on my EXILES game log I mention basically running Artorias as a starter boss and wanted to share on here how I got some success.

  • Took the glass cannon approach, he had :heart::heart::heart: of health, and though the party had only a little damage before the fight, he managed to KO 2/3 players while the last one held on by a thread when delivering the final blow. Easily could have been a TPK if they hadn’t gotten lucky and taken him to half health.

  • Almost all his attacks, true to form as seen in the actual boss fight i based them on, have an AOE. his basic attack swings against everything close in his front or right arc, he can spin for everything in close range, and his charge up move (activated once he hits :heart: and goes off his next turn) hit for a huge amount of damage on everything close. his only non-AOE attack was a stabbing lunge that moved him far distance and attacked a single target.

  • Really pulling off the feel of Dark souls were his reactions:

  1. When successfully attacked he rolled away just out of engagement range

  2. when they failed to hit him he back-handed them for basic effort

  3. If they crit failed he got to take a free swing at them and anything else in the arc.

  • Last of all was Hank’s trick of building tension by rolling in front of the players, not behind a screen. I gave the expectation of possible death and they saw me roll three 19’s in a row and put the fear of RNGesus in them.

Overall it felt great and while I wish it lasted a bit longer, they were on their toes and barely made it out. I’m looking forward to making them some more great boss fights in the future.

Tryna play DnD like a Big Ol' Badass