The Big Bad Wolf: Embracing Simplicity in Designing Boss Fights

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Game: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
Game Element: The Big Bad Wolf, raid boss in Karazhan
Discipline: Content Design

Today, let’s discuss what was probably my first solid fight in World of Warcraft  “the Big Bad Wolf”  and how simple can be satisfying.

In this post-mortem, you’ll learn the value of effective and safe brainstorming, so read on.

The Big Bad Wolf

Scott: I am SO VERY EXCITED about what we’re going to work on today. Imagine Scott raising his hands in the air like the popular “It’s happening!!!” GIF.  

Scott: We are *finally* getting to the Opera House.

Me: The what?

Scott: The oper… *looks at me to see if I’m serious* oh, hush, you. 

Scott had been excited about this encounter for weeks.

The core concept of the Opera House was that we were going to have a cycling encounter which changed from week to week. 

Scott: So, here’s the three encounter concepts that got approved between Metzen and Legal:

  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Romero and Julianne
  • The Big Bad Wolf

Joe: Sweet. Are you sure that’s enough though? Maybe we can rip off more of Brazie’s childhood heroes in the future.

Me: Har, har. How are we breaking this up?

Scott: I’m going to focus on working on the cross-week scripting and setting up the voice overs. Joe, you or Geoff take Romulo and Julianne.

I’ll start working on the Wizard of Oz and Brazie…. uh, figure out something for the Big, Bad Wolf.

Me: Oooooh. What kind of fight should it be?

When dividing up fights in the same area, you want to make sure the pacing between the different fights is dramatically different, such that they feel more distinctive than other fights.

If every fight  in a dungeon in an AoE swarm add-in-monsters fight, then AoE classes will dominate that raid tier. 

Scott: Well, Romulo and Julianne should be a controlled timing/ability usage fight.  The Wizard of Oz will be about proper crowd control spell usage and tanking.

So, it makes sense if it’s a single-target tank & spank with a cool gimmick.

Me: Hmm…. We should definitely do something involving little red.

Scott: Yeah, but I’d rather avoid having you deal with a friendly NPC in the fight.

Those kinds of encounters are really difficult to setup and this is only your second raid boss.

Joe: Maybe we could dress Alex up as little red riding hood and include a copy of him in every box.

Me: pfft. (I wasn’t very good at snappy comebacks in those days.) 

Me: Maybe he could just scare you the way that Onyxia scared Joe’s Shaman into the lava on our raid last week.

Joe: At least I wasn’t tanking half the time on my Warlock screaming “Heal the Voidwalker” over Ventrilo. Joe and I were co-leading a molten core/onyxia raid group in the evenings.

I often pulled aggro on Onyxia by dropping tons of DoT spells on her.  Joe regularly complained about how inconsistent grounding totem’s fear removal effect was. 

Scott: *AHEM* Alright kids, that’s enough.  Those aren’t terribly bad ideas though. They certainly sound wolfy.

Tank and spanks get boring after a while, what can we do to break them up?

wolf boss

Me: If one of the players turned into Little Red once in a while, then the boss chased her, that would be pretty sweet.

It’s actually really thrilling when you pull aggro on the boss and the whole team needs you to react quickly to survive.

Joe:  Yeah, but most casters don’t have the tools to survive if they get hit.

Scott: Hmmm… it would also really suck if you were a rogue and got insta gibbed because he turned to fight you.

Me: What if we tuned the boss such that a caster wouldn’t just blow up.

Joe: Tanks would just sit there and tank the whole time and just ignore the mechanic entirely.

That would be pointless.

Brainstorming is a tough thing to do.

You need to make it safe for everyone to contribute and you also want to eventually throw out bad ideas.

In my experience, its best if everyone just shares their ideas without shooting holes in them.

The exception to that rule is that this type of critical analysis is best done when you have ideas that resonate strongly with people and you need to double-check before moving forward.  

Scott: What if you simply had *no* armor when you turn into Little Red?

Joe: And we could make you run faster. But you’d still just sit there and use shield wall.

Me: Fine, we’ll just disable all of your abilities and make it really clear that running away is the right thing to do.

Joe: Yeah, and he can fear everyone once in a while to reset threat on the fight.

Scott: I’ll even get some VO where the wolf scares you off and tells you to run away.

Me: I’ll go get it done.  Uh, is there anything else to discuss?

Scott: No… I actually think we’ve got it. Be sure to stick something else on the fight that shows off the cool “swipe” animation those wolves have though.

You can just copy a spell from the outdoor zone.

Joe: I’m just glad we finally have a fight that will make Bjorn (our main tank) run around like a little girl.

I nodded in agreement. Nobody liked Bjorn*.  

Scott: I think I know what that voice-over line is going to be… *This is a lie, everyone loved Bjorn.

We equally loved making fun of his obsession with getting the best gear first.

Table of Contents


So what’s the important story here? Well, the first point is that your team is your first source of inspiration.

You’ll often get great ideas from a little bit of discussion and an open environment that encourages strong growth.

Once you hit upon a theme that resonates with all of you strongly (In this case, running away) it becomes safe to break the creative build-up to critique the idea a bit.

You can see here how we each inspired an idea from the other – Scott recognized the opportunity of accusing players of running like a little girl.

Joe recognized the need to fear people to keep them spread out before transforming someone into the little girl.  … and so on.

However, there was an element we didn’t discuss that we really should have:

  • How could players who were NOT little red help her survive?

As it turned out, the players figured this out on their own.

This was a huge opportunity to make players feel better about each other as a team by helping keep Little Red alive.

We actually stumbled into it by the sheer virtues of our class design:

  • Paladins – Blessing of Protection cast on Little Red Riding Hood will prevent the target from receiving any damage from the Wolf. Make sure to not use this buff too early to get the maximum benefit of this spell.
  • Mages – If you happen to have an arcane mage, Slow (Mage spell) is effective against the Big Bad Wolf (Confirmed 09/09/2008). Amplify Magic helps with healing as there is no magic damage during the fight.
  • Warriors – Thunderclap slows his damage output when chasing. You can Intervene to whomever receives the Riding Hood debuff to provide a bit of extra protection. Demoralizing Shout can also reduce the damage.

However, this might have been possible to engineer into the encounter more ways for classes to help.

Maybe they could trip the Big Bad, or perhaps debuff him in ways that bought you more time to kite.

There could have been traps around the room that allies could setup while fighting.

But, hey, you don’t see every opportunity.


By recognizing the limitations of relying solely on personal ideas and being open to input from others, you can overcome getting emotionally attached to your own ideas.

This will allow you to be more flexible and have a more adaptable mindset that might foster growth and progress in your career.

The diverse perspectives and input from team members can spark creativity and lead to innovative solutions that you wouldn’t have thought of alone.

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One Response

  1. Thanks for another great write up, as someone who is studying game design and has been playing World of Warcraft since the days this has been an eye opener.

    Something I have been increasingly curious about when reading through the postmortems, how does scripting work for a MMO like WoW? Do you write the encounters scripts in Lua or a somewhat similar way to how it worked in the WC3/SC2 editor?

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