You’ve got a big boss fight lined up. You want it to be scary as hell, with the players fearing for their character’s lives, while still invested enough to take on the beast. Any player who has glanced at the Bestiary or Monster Manual probably isn’t going to be amazed when you drop a description and tell them to roll initiative. That all changes when you’ve spent time foreshadowing the evil power that seeks their demise.
An easy way to foreshadow is to include the big bad villain in earlier encounters, with it pulling its punches and fleeing the scene early. There’s certainly a place for nerfing an encounter, but what if your Big Bad could hand out a beating, gain a reputation for ruthlessness, and leave the PCs alive to stew in the sting of their humiliation?
It would be a perfectly delectable nightmare.
It Hunts Me While I Sleep
One night the PCs find themselves standing around a giant stone tomb. With no explanation for how they got there, they are left to assume—and hope—that this is all a bad dream.
Inside the tomb they find the skeletal remains of individuals dressed just as they (the PCs) are dressed right now. Could these be their own corpses? There is no explanation for the skeletons, no cracked bones, no blade marks, no plaque describing their heroic deeds. Just as they are about to explore further, everything fades to black.
The next morning they find themselves in their beds, with no clue that the vision was real, magical, or a dream, although they all shared it.
The following night they see the tomb again, but this time there is a cave entrance, or an empty throne—some marker that they’ll see later in the waking world that will bring these horrible dreams flooding back.
On the third night—and this should happen a level or two before the actual boss fight, or much earlier in the campaign—their nemesis appears, ready to do battle with the PCs. Roll Initiative!
Running A Nightmare Encounter
This should be a tough fight, with the boss much tougher than the PCs could hope to defeat, but not so tough that the players won’t want to try. I’m thinking 4 or 5 CR higher than the party’s average level, but you know your group best, so judge accordingly.
The PCs should be limited in some way. Perhaps their weapons don’t do as much damage as usual (monsters get more Damage Reduction) or they’re slowed, just like those nightmares where you try to run, but can’t. Maybe they need to succeed on a Will / Wisdom save before they can act. The players should feel the nightmarish nature of the encounter, both through your descriptions and mechanically. I like limiting them to their signature weapons only, which they find in the tomb.
During the encounter, aim to take down one PC quickly. When they die, take them out of the room and explain that they’ve woken up, and it is, in fact, all a dream. Make a point of telling them that their character is not sure if it is possible to die in the dream (it isn’t). Ensure a few rounds pass before they can start trying to wake the others. Each PCs gets a Will / Wisdom save to resist waking up.
It doesn’t matter if the PCs are wiped out or win through, only that they realize that they’re up against a villain that doesn’t play fair, and that they’ll need to pool every resource to take him down in the end.
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