In level-based fantasy rpgs, trying to match the power level of the big bad adversary to where the player characters will be at that point in an adventure is like trying to thread a needle with your eyes closed.
As the GM, you’re anticipating where the PCs are going to be in terms of hit points and depleted resources. All the while, you hope the types and number of monsters, the NPC’s and the setback potential of traps, terrain and magical obstacles are also appropriate.
Easing in, easing out
One approach GMs might take is one I’ll call “easing in, easing out.” Instead of building a dungeon that results in a boss fight at the end, this puts the most powerful adversary in the heart of the session, when you can more safely presume the PCs are at or close to full power.
With the big bad in the middle, the session will begin and end with encounters against less challenging foes, hence the “easing in, easing out.”
It begins more easily as a warmup, to get the PCs comfortable with combat, and to give them an early accomplishment.
It ends with a less capable foe because it is presumed the PCs have diminished capabilities at this point — fewer hit points, spells and magic items at their disposal.
Doesn’t this run against everything we know about building a satisfying story — a slow build to a kitchen-sink encounter in the third act?
What it does is most closely resemble the “mop up” encounter of the sort that were a staple of James Bond movies of old.
What happens after Bond and a whole army defeat Goldfinger, Specter or Scaramanga? Well, in a closing moment, he has a more personal, though certainly less challenging, encounter with one of the henchmen, say Rosa Kleb disguised as the hotel maid, or the assassins Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint or the loyal assistant Nick Nack.
Taking this approach, the encounter at the heart of the session meets the story expectations of facing the big bad, and testing the PCs’ capabilities for saving the world, mastering great magic or resolving the overriding threat or problem.
The “easing out” encounter makes that battle more personal — a foe out for revenge, a delayed threat set in motion, a “new” foe that can serve as the next adversary (this is a common storytelling technique of comic books), or a dramatic complication for certain player characters (such as the sort serial TV uses to hook viewers for the next episode).
And really, are intimate encounters such as these any less satisfying from player perspective than the boss fight? The enemy takes a last desperate stab at our heroes, who then have the satisfaction of defeating this particular villain.
In some ways, it makes the henchmen encounter memorable, this moment in the spotlight. Certainly, for many Bond films, the henchmen can leave a lasting impression, be they Jaws, Odd Job or Xenia Onatopp.
All that’s left for the PCs to do is come up with a punny quip after dispensing with the villain.