Describing a Memorable Monster Death for Your D&D Players
Updated: Oct 19, 2018
After battling their way past an orcish horde and through a dungeon riddled with traps and trolls, the heroes discover a secret passage. They follow it through a series of tunnels and up a winding staircase to a locked door, crafted from oak and reinforced with iron plates. As your rogue begins to search the door for traps, it opens inward of its own volition.
The room beyond is mostly dark, illuminated only by the faint orange glow of distant candles and by flickering pulses of otherworldly light. A deep, rumbling voice calls from the darkness, “You have proven yourselves to be worthy adversaries, but now it is time for you to die…”
This is it, Quest Master—the moment to which you’ve been building. Over the course of several hours, the players in your Dungeons & Dragons adventure have delved your dungeons, solved your riddles, fought their way through some enemies, and thought their way past others. Now, as the hulking demon lord lunges at them from the shadows, your players will roll initiative and all eyes will be on you.
The shape and impact of a boss fight can often color an entire adventure. It can leave your players feeling exhilarated, exhausted, or—if you’re not careful—it may leave them feeling nothing at all. And since a boss fight typically happens at the end of an adventure, the fight’s outcome can critically impact the way your players will remember the whole of your story.
So how will this demon die? Will it simply fall? Wiped out of existence by an appropriate number of damage points? Will it vanish unceremoniously as its body returns to the Abyss? Will it explode into a super-heated blast of flame? Or will it stare at its killer wide-eyed, clutching at the bleeding wound in its abdomen, through which the rogue’s rapier thrust upward past the demon’s ribs and into its small, blackened heart? Maybe it opens its mouth as though to speak, but only blood trickles out. Maybe the demon then staggers to one knee and thuds to the ground, and as its blood spills out of its body it mingles with the arcane runes strewn along the floor…
The truth is that the better and more compelling your monster’s death, the more rewarding your players will find your adventure. They are, after all, the heroes in this story, and heroes need to be heroic.
So here are 6 quick tips for getting the most from your dead monsters:
1. Everything Happens in Service to the Larger Story
As a shared storytelling experience, Dungeons & Dragons works best when everyone understands the story. That means your hook is gripping, the stakes are clear, your player characters are properly motivated, and your villains are taking actions that make sense within the story.
As a result, one of the things you want to be sure to do in order to make your monster deaths fantastic and memorable is to work your monsters (and other villains) into your stories in such a way that they feel connected to everything that’s happening.
A murder mystery that suggests a manipulative mastermind has been operating behind the scenes doesn’t want to culminate with a fight against an ogre or similar brute. It wants to end with a fight against an intelligent villain—one who will make good use of the encounter’s terrain and, possibly, his or her minions.
In other words, a good plot can be a powerful thing. Use it. Don’t fight it.
2. They Can’t All Be Boss Fights
You simply can’t expect all your fights to be at the same level. And you don’t want them to be.
Some fights should be designed to push the heroes to their utmost limits. You should render one or two unconscious. Perhaps another is incapacitated by a spell effect. But the others scrape through, keep their companions alive, and rally to finish off their foe… That can be a great recipe for some fights, but it’s a disastrous recipe if it’s overused.
Sometimes you just need to let your heroes feel powerful as they cut through a pack of goblins—or when they’re higher level—a fire giant warband. Don’t try to milk every death in such situations. Instead, shine the spotlight on your heroes, and allow them to revel in their fantastical abilities.
3. Build Toward the Final Cut
When you do get into the boss fight—or any other fight that seems rife with potential—then you want to start thinking about the fight as a miniature story all its own, with a beginning, middle, and end—just like the larger adventure. And just as with the larger adventure, it shouldn’t start with its climax; it should build toward it.
Your monster begins at full strength and with all its abilities available to it. You want to describe it, here, with terms that suggest power. And as the fight continues, you’ll see the momentum swing in favor of either the monster or the player characters.
Your monster—which is a combatant in the fight—will also recognize this swing in momentum, and it should react. Describing the monster’s reaction to the changes in momentum is a key part to making the final blow feel meaningful. It suggests that the final cut or spell is the culmination of a series of story events, not just a sum of damage rolls.
Perhaps your monster leaps into battle with a roar, flattens one hero and seeks to press its advantage, only to find itself made vulnerable by a spell. The barbarian immediately cuts deep into its hide, so the monster becomes desperate and lashes out. It may drop the barbarian and look to attack the spell-caster that had weakened it… And now, if your ranger fells the monster, you have a story:
As the beast lunges forward to claim vengeance upon the sorcerer, the ranger turns. Her companion’s life is at risk. She swiftly notches an arrow and fires. The shot is true. It catches the beast between the eyes. And it staggers to the ground—just inches from the unwary mage.
4. It’s All in the Details
If you want your players to cheer when an enemy falls—or breathe a sigh of relief as they narrowly survive a deadly adversary’s relentless assault—you need to get them invested in the scene. As we noted earlier, this is largely a matter of your story, plot, and rising action. But it’s just as much a matter of details.
Your players need to be able to visualize the scene. They need to know what your monsters look like, sound like, and how they smell. Your party needs you to bring the scene to life with your words.
After all, what would make you more interested in an adventure?
A minotaur that charges, rolls to hit armor class 23, and deals 27 damage.
Or a minotaur that emerges from the cavern entrance with its breath steaming out of its bull-like nostrils. It bellows as it lowers its horns, then charges at the startled ranger with frightening speed, slamming its horns into the ranger’s side and fracturing the ranger’s ribs.
5. Get Your Players to Help Set the Scene
Because Dungeons & Dragons is a shared storytelling experience, if you want your monster deaths to be truly fantastic, you need your players to help you.
You need them to do more than swing and hit a certain target number or just state the name of the spells they cast; you need them to describe their actions. Encourage them to bring their characters’ actions to life—to help everyone else visualize what’s happening—just as they want you to help them visualize the scene in which their characters are taking part.
So how do you get the taciturn fighter to embellish his chops with his sword? For starters, you might reward advantage to a particularly well-described attack sequence. Or when your heroes down your lesser minions, you might ask them to describe their own killing blows. However you do it, once you get your players thinking about the combat in really vivid terms, they’ll be thinking about the whole combat in such terms—not just their actions, but yours as well.
6. Cheat to Make the Story Better
Okay, let’s be clear. This is a tactic you use only with caution, and only to make an encounter—and a monster death—better and more memorable.
To start, there’s the fact that your adventure is a story, and because your adventure is a story, every scene and every character exists to enrich the larger story (point #1).
Scenes should help move your story forward. If your scenes aren’t moving the story forward, they should offer some other dramatic effect—such as allowing your heroes to pursue their individual goals. And even these scenes work best when you can find some way to tie them back to the story’s primary conflict.
Meanwhile, your characters each have their roles to serve, and some monsters or villains need to do more than die unceremoniously. This may mean that when the minotaur that’s supposed to put a good scare into the heroes ends up being struck by three critical hits in a row, it doesn’t fall (despite the math), but survives to take another swing or two.
But—and this is an important “but”—this doesn’t work if you end up killing a hero. You need to judge your scene correctly, to ensure that you’re playing to its intent—and not beyond that.
Character deaths are okay when they’re legitimate, but not when you’re cheating. If you adjust the numbers a little bit at the right times, your players will feel exhilarated by the outcomes of their fights:
That minotaur was surprisingly tough!
We were so close to capturing the main villain long before we expected to catch him; he was so lucky to get away!
I can’t believe how tough that orc was. What does that mean we can expect of the war-chief?
But if you don’t play your scene by the numbers, and you get things wrong, your players will feel cheated—and rightly so.
The main thing to remember is that the game is about the story. The more you focus on your story and the plot, characterization and description that make any story great, the better your players will remember your monster deaths—and everything else as well!