This past Friday the PCs in one of my D&D games had a boss encounter of sorts. They went into the nest of some abyssal, abberrations that are something of an homage from me to the Alien movies. The session went well. People had fun. And at the end of the session the PCs stood triumphant, the day saved and a terrible wrong righted...or at least, made as right as it could be considering the circumstances.
Looking back on the session now (Sunday night) I'm pleased with the session. After the session I was happy with it too, but I was much more dissatisfied with the combat. My PCs are strong even for their level. There are a number of advantages in their favor over what D&D is balanced for. Mostly I don't mind this, but I was disappointed in the moment that what I thought would be a very dangerous and trying fight ultimately turned out to be a bit of a breeze for them.
Meanwhile, my players were all talking about just how close the encounter had been to wiping them all off the map.
That felt strange to me. I felt they were never really threatened. They all felt like they'd just cheated death, and not by very much. So what happened?
From my perspective it felt lackluster because 1 round into the combat the boss triggered their "run for your life" condition on count of how much damage the PCs put out. This is the biggest reason why I felt the PCs weren't threatened, because essentially them showing up was cause for a big boss monster to go into "RUN FOR YOUR LIFE" mode and try to flee. It wasn't a full out fight for your life against this creature. It was basically the Rogue/Ranger chasing the queen while the rest of the party dealt with the guards so to speak.
In the process of that, some PCs did go low on HP but no one was put to 0 until the very end. And technically the thing that 0'd that player out wasn't from the Queen encounter but from a second encounter they triggered in the process.
My Player's Perspective
From my player's perspective the fight was desperate. Why? They went in with a plan. They started the fight right next to the Queen's area with time to buff themselves and go in as strong as they could. Even with that, they burned through a lot of their resources. Spell slots were very dear by the end of the fight, all the big spell slots were used. Items were used. Once a week items were used. And even with that, several of them got reduced down to single digit hitpoints and got back up only because of the luck of initiative rolls, or a couple of lucky high damage rolls that took some opposition off the field faster than expected.
See the difference?
I was upset that the monster went right into flee mode, as it was its only chance of surviving. The PCs however were faced with a desperate fail condition (the queen escapes) that pulled them apart. They were aware of how few resources they still had as the fight winded down. They knew they were still in the nest. More to the point, they didn't know when, where, or how more monsters would come. Nor what other tricks and traps awaited for them.
the lesson I want folks to take from this is that it is very important to talk to your players about your game and get their view on things. If I didn't do that, I likely would continue to ratchet up difficulty because while I mostly don't worry about being unable to challenge the PCs, I don't want them bored either. However, in talking to them I found that they were very much the opposite of board. Two of them mentioned still being 'wired' from the fight the next day.
Now there are still more things to take from this. The encounter wasn't perfect. But the seeds were good. The PCs felt challenged. The PCs felt the need to burn valuable resources. And the PCs were aware of not just a Lose condition (everyone dies) but also a Fail condition (the Queen escapes) and that further heightened the tension.
And that's not half bad, if I do say so myself.