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I know myself, and I know my tendency to over-design things and make them more complicated than they should be, so I'm asking here first before I redo the wheel:

Does anyone have some base level tips for boss/complex monster designs? I've taken a look around the monster design framework in ace, and it seems the most control you have is when they use certain skills, ie at a certain health level, after a turn number, and how often they use them. I know we can make skills call events and the like, but I want to limit the amount of scripting I do in the game. So some basic design tips and tricks that people have picked up that can make for interesting fights would be nice.

(I am limited in my current game on how much I can design them given its intended that any boss can be taken down first try without trial/error and being a danger in only that the game has perma-death, but more complex tips would still be nice for later use.)

Thanks in advance.
The TM is for Totally Magical.
One of the easiest things you can do to make a boss really challenging is to give it minions, particularly minions that prevent you from effectively fighting the boss: the kind of minions the player can't ignore.
I'm no LockeZ, but I can offer a few tips.

I often use turn settings a lot for limiting how harmful my bosses can be. When I create a boss, I'll give the boss its pool of abilities, and depending on how devastating I want it to be, I'll limit the by adjusting the frequency of their heavy-hitting skills to once every two or three turns. On that note, you can also increase the number of actions the enemy has per turn, which can make the enemy go from "meh" to "CALM DOWN".

As far as themes: there's the countdown boss, that notifies the player "Big-bad move is coming in three rounds!" that ends on that third round with a devastating attack/one-shot.

There's enemies that can inflict a state on the entire party which changes the skills they can use for a bit, requiring you to approach the enemy in a whole new way than the player intended.

There can be bosses that change the field of battle, completely altering the flow of combat (e.g., every three rounds it alters the state of the combat field, or places a major debuff on the characters).

There's the "change forms" boss that can change its elemental affinity and whatnot.

As pianotm said, the minion boss is a good one: especially if you have a minion that can drop a 50% heal on the boss while the other one is blinding all of your allies: do you drop the healer, or drop the blinder? Try to drop both at once? And so on.

The questions I always consider in boss fights is, where does the battle take place, what kind of enemy do I expect to see here, what attacks are common to the area and how can the boss worsen it? Then there's other mechanical questions: what do I want players to do in order to win? What mechanic have I been training throughout the dungeon, and will the player be able to apply that mechanic to the boss? For example, if you have a dungeon where you introduce elemental weakness, it's a good idea to have the boss weak to an element: after all, you just beat the players over the head with that idea as they were traversing the dungeon.
My main issue so far has been balancing making interesting boss fights with making some that players can reasonably take down first try. So far, most of my bosses haven't been that much more powerful than the players (some are just the character the players get when they recruit them) plus some minions, with the difficulty coming from being worn down from the prior enemies. No easy/cheap recovery options means I tend to go for whittling down my players.

So I feel I have to give players plenty of warning so they can use abilities, and not blindside them with obscenely high health enemies or the like, or abilities that are far out of the norm. Self-limitations not helping matters, but so far it has just limited my epic challenges from being Final Fantasy/SMT level 'prep everything perfectly' challenging, and instead being normal enemies+
I usually make bosses in a way that requires lots of playtesting, testing it out 3 times with a party on the level I expect them to be, a few levels below and a few levels above. Then usually I tweak the boss to make it more challenging or less challenging depending on how the battles went.

Just check out for yourself what your bosses are lacking or even what they are abundant in and tweak them accordingly. Use status effects, play with the defense lv to not give them a daunting amount of HP but still make them feel challenging. There are multiple ways to make a boss epic, it's about what you think is epic enough.

What is your goal with the bosses exactly? I get the feeling from your posts that you find them too easy, so them give them some better stats, some more devastating moves, some tactical stuff like buffing itself. Do you need some exact examples or you need just a few tips and tricks?

Also, there's no shame in some bosses just feeling like a Normal Enemy+, even FF does that sometimes. But to give you more clearer tips maybe give a single example or something of what you would like to improve in a boss, the way you ask for advice now is a little bit too vague for me to properly answer.
The TM is for Totally Magical.
Yes, I believe that a boss should be passable on the first attempt, but I also believe that it should be challenging enough that it rarely happens. I have managed to design one good boss, just one that meets my actual expectations for what a boss should be. She was a boss with minions. The minions didn't attack. One simply locks your attack command, and it hits 50 percent of the time, and the other locks your special command: also hits 50 percent of the time and it respawned once. It made that boss fight into a real beast of a battle. Meanwhile, the final boss, nearly twice as strong, was painfully easy. All the rest I did are crap. But I like what Gredge suggested about elemental shifting, and maybe even shifting physical attributes so that doing the same thing doesn't work every time.

I don't suggest you design your bosses with the objective of making them easy enough to pass. If that's your objective, you should instead make them on the hard side and tone them down until they're at a level you find acceptable.
If they are supposed to be defeated easily, perhaps you could just give them really low health pools. However, their mechanics would have to be really interesting for the low X number of rounds they are alive so that players wouldn't get bored.

Additionally, you could equip them with a wide array of non-damaging abilities such as blinds, sleeps, and incapacitates so the fights become a matter of managing the boss's crowd crowd without worry about mitigating damage. This way the player would be able to overcome the fights eventually without having to worry about dying via massive amounts of damage (since you said your game was permadeath). This would make some for very interesting fights.

VX Ace has pretty limited control over AI, for sure. I had to use a chimera of scripts to get it to do what I want for Bossgame - without that, you can't make enemies target intelligently, and you can't set up complex restrictions for when bosses will or won't use a specific attack. Still, I can give some general advice!

If you want players to be able to defeat a boss on the first shot, but you still want players to face a challenge and your game has permadeath, there's a few things you can do to help them succeed:

1) Give them some room for mistakes. Don't give the boss any instant kill moves. If the boss has a powerhouse move, give some sort of visual / verbal warning a turn or two before the boss uses it, and have the boss take a rest after using it the first time. Make sure your boss only uses mechanics your players can appropriately respond too, and make sure that when they screw up the first couple times, they won't be unforgivably punished for it.

2) Give the players some time to learn the boss and plan around its strategy. This ties with #1. Introduce some enemies that use similar moves in the area leading up to the boss, so players will know what it does before facing the boss. Include some hints here and there about the boss's strategy and weaknesses. Absolutely don't make the boss rely on a specific equipment set up unless the player has a way of knowing what they need to bring before they start the battle.

3) Also, just in case - don't have the battle start before the player is ready. If there's a cutscene beforehand, give the player a quick chance to change their equipment and use healing items before they start.
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
I'd say, when you're designing a boss, start by coming up with a basic strategy for winning against the boss. Not a detailed strategy, just a single straightforward idea that'll form the player's biggest goal other than "kill the boss" and "don't die."

Often this strategy will use a specific skill or a specific category of skill that the player has - stun the boss to interrupt its skills, reflect its skills back at it, defeat its minions quickly by using their elemental weakness, cure paralysis quickly before your whole party is paralyzed, erect elemental shields before the boss uses elemental attacks. In other cases it'll be more of a response to specific boss behavior - kill the minions before they explode, don't let anyone get below half health, win within 15 rounds, don't let the summoned minions overwhelm you, take advantage of when the boss spends a turn reloading ammo, hit the correct target when the boss splits in half.

Once you have this primary idea you can usually pretty quickly come up with a way for the boss to require it, and for the player to accomplish it. If you're having trouble with the former, you might not have enough tools to let bosses do stuff, or you might just not be thinking about your tools in the right way - for example many people underestimate how complex RPG Maker's conditions can be for letting a boss use a certain skill. By running battle events every round you can detect all kinds of situations, and turn switches on and off that control the boss's access to certain skills. You can also make a boss's skill call a common event instead of doing damage. The common event then selects a target using whatever logic you want, and uses a second, damage-dealing skill on a specific target, while perhaps also recording what target it was used on. That common event can also do other things like applying a status effect to the boss, setting a variable to give the skill a cooldown (by reducing that variable every round in a battle event), or turning on/off switches to determine the boss's next skill.

If you're having trouble with coming up with ways for the player to accomplish the main goal you've set out for them, you probably need to give the player more skills. It's really important that the player's skills have real uses, and a great way to do this is often to come up with a skill based on the fact that you want to make a boss require it. Just make sure the skill is useful more than once in the game - add a couple normal enemies that do the same thing, and have a later boss or two repeat the gimmick (but also do other stuff). Ideally you want at least one normal enemy to require the player to use this new skill before the boss does. Maybe make a skill do multiple things, if you think it would be helpful, but be wary that the player will start to think of the skill as only having one use if it's used that way 95% of the time, and will stop thinking about strategic ways to use its other property.

Because your game has permanent death, conveyance is also extremely important. It's vital that the player be able to intuitively figure out what the boss is trying to do, though they should still hopefully have to figure out on their own how to respond to it. Unfortunately I don't have very good advice on how to convey what a boss is doing. I can point to some good examples and bad examples but I'm not sure I can recommend how to accomplish it yourself.

Of course, having a boss do just one thing isn't very interesting, and isn't enough to challenge the player unless the boss is right at the beginning of the game. Once you have this primary behavior nailed down, you want to add other stuff to get in the player's way while they're trying to accomplish that main thing. These other behaviors should be less deadly, and commonly used by enemies other than the boss, such as minor status effects, damage, healing its minions, removing ailments you apply to it, etc. It often makes the boss far more interesting if these secondary behaviors are in some way related to the boss's main gimmick, but be sure not to disable the player's ways of dealing with the boss's main gimmick in the process! You can make them slightly less effective, but don't make them ineffective. For example, don't make a boss re-cast a buff every time the player dispels it, but you can make it re-cast the buff six rounds after the player dispels it so they have to keep doing so, or make the boss silence the player so they have to remove silence before they can cast Dispel.

To give an example of how I go through this process, here's a boss I recently created for the Unofficial Squaresoft MUD:

Serah, bearer of the Oracle Asterisk

Serah is part of a series of bosses which are legendary heroes who use the same classes as players. There's one boss for each class. She uses the Oracle class, a class focused around status ailments, so her main gimmick is Inflicting the same status ailments as player Oracles.

Dealing with this as a player is a two-step processs. First they need to figure out what status ailments she is going to use - this is simply a matter of realizing that she's probably going to use the same skills as player Oracles, and then checking the class menu to see what skills player Oracles have. Secondly, they need to either make themselves immune to those ailments or use status recovery abilities to heal them.

Complicating this is the fact that Serah uses six status ailments, and the player only has three armor slots and two accessory slots. And players will only have access to some of the possible immunity items depending on which items they've bought and what class they are. This is one of those secondary things getting in the way of the player using the obvious best strategy. The player has to decide which ailments are most important to be immune to, and heal the rest during combat.

Also adding additional complications are Serah's MP drain ability, her HP drain ability, and an attack called Wound that deals damage and slightly reduces the player's maximum HP. The HP drain causes the battle to be prolonged if the player doesn't deal with it (which they have several ways to do so), and Wound punishes the player for letting the battle be prolonged. The MP drain causes the player to become unable to heal their ailments (or to attack at all, for some players) if they don't pay attention.

Another secondary complication is the way she responds to players to try to reflect her spells back at her. All Oracle spells are reflectable, so by default, if the player cast Reflect they would become invulnerable. Serah deals with this several ways. First, she occasionally dispels the player's buffs, which causes complications for all players whether they're using Reflect or not. Secondly, if the player is buffed with Reflect, she is five times as likely to use Dispel (but will only use Dispel once every 10 rounds at most). Thirdly, if the player is buffed with Reflect and she doesn't use Dispel, she will use Wound extremely often, which is unreflectable. However, this is still vastly less dangerous than her status ailments, so Reflect is still a very good strategy for players.

Despite not being made in RPG Maker, everything this boss does can be very easily done in an RPG Maker VX Ace battle. You probably don't have a class system, but you probably do have multiple characters the player can choose from instead, which is basically the same thing in this context. Your characters have different equipment options and different spells, and you could have a boss based on using the same skills as one of your characters, and it could play out exactly like this.

My Boss Design Topic is always open.
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