D&D 5E Challenge Rating Is Imprecise (And That's OK)


One thing I don't understand is the "I have to make the combat deadly in order to make it a challenge". If you find that is the case, there are likely reasons for it such as OP characters with higher than normal ability scores or magic items, players that are just really good at tactics, 5 minute work days, etc..

But why is this a problem? When calculating encounter difficulty add a level or 3 to the average party level. Ignore the multiplier for the number of monsters. Crank it up to 11. The system is designed to be on the easy side, 4 person party with a non-optimal mix of PCs, minimal or no magic items, and new players. Which totally makes sense, if new DMs followed the rules and TPKed the group every other encounter, it would be quite frustrating. Meanwhile when your average party is more powerful than that, it's easy to compensate for. Just recalibrate the numbers a bit until you get it dialed in.

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Tony Vargas

One thing I don't understand is the "I have to make the combat deadly in order to make it a challenge". If you find that is the case, there are likely reasons for it such as OP characters with higher than normal ability scores or magic items, players that are just really good at tactics, 5 minute work days, etc..
Sounds like you understand it. ;)

The game is like Scrooge's senses, the least little thing affects them, an undigested bit of lore, a blot of of player knowledge, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone pacing....


I'm not 100% committed to the maths / guesstimates in this pdf I put together, but the broad strokes regarding how I think about significant combat encounter design IS something that has worked great for me. For me, it's less about CR, and more about taking a little time to interrogate an encounter design with the right questions.


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Moderator Emeritus
I am primed to agree with this article because I can't wrap my head around the constant moaning about CR and don't know why anyone from beginning DM to the most experienced grognard needs anything more than that CR number and an informed eyeball. Yes, a handful of monsters (like shadows and spectres) seem under CRed but that is the exception, not the rule.

Tony Vargas

That's how I initially felt about CR when 3.0 introduced it. I'd always (after the first few years) been able to eye-ball a challenge (and then, if my eyes got it wrong, adjust it on the fly).
But, it did turn out to be a useful/simple idea - a CR = level monster is a speedbump encounter, for 2 monsters, reduce CR by 2, for 4, by 4, just doubling/deducting 2 - you could spllit up just one of two monsters for mixed encounter. Of course, it was not very dependable because 3.5 CharOP had party capability even more varied than ever, and I didn't very actually run that much 3e (I was lucky enough to be in a group with two other DMs!). But it was a neat idea. 4e, of course, had class balance and it's encounter building was similarly straightforward (starting with same number of same level monsters, then Solos count as 5, Elites as 2, minions as 1/4), so it worked smoothly.

5e CR is not, I think, a lot worse than 3e's, for similar reasons, even if it were spot-on, what the party's ability could vary wildly. But it is not as intuitive as I remember 3e's being (and I could be mis-remembering). There's no like, base-line encounter of CR = level. There's that odd multiplier if you don't heroically outnumber the enemy, that somehow says "Yes, this is harder, but you don't deserve exp for it being harder?"


But it's not just AC, HP, etc. I've run for two different group simultaneously. Similar party makeup, same levels and so on but one group was just more effective than the other. Then you also have to throw in the tactical acumen of the DM. So no, I don't think it's doable. There should be some discussion in the DMG section where they give you the calculations about adjusting for your party but it's really just something you have to figure out with a bit of trial and error.
do I think such a methodology will get you perfect results, no of course not. Do I think you will get tighter results than we do now....absolutely.


I wish they kept the 4e CR Design - monster cr per character level. And stronger and weaker creatures are adjusted to that.
A 5vs 5 Battle in 5e is more often better balanced than a 5 vs 1 Battle, even if you adjust the Encounter math according to the book.

But what I noticed is, that often the encounters that I run are to easy, when I don't use the abilities of the Monsters correctly.

Like, a Goblin attack can be easy peasy if the Goblins just stay in an open field, don't nimble escape or hide. The same amount of Goblins can be deadly, if put them in a cave system or forest, where they can ambush and hide. But you need to use all their abilities or a Band of 20 Goblins, 2 Goblin bosses and a Druid gets slaughtered by a party of 5 level 5 characters (7400 adjusted XP vs 5500 encounter Budget for a deadly encounter of 5 level 5 characters). That happened in my first big campaign that I run, because I forgot to bonus action hide to get advantage or even just get out of line of sight (eveb though I built that encounter especially with line of sightand good hiding places in mind, ai just forgot dueinf the encounter). I owe Goblin kind a big apology for that.

Just last week I forget that invisible creatures get advantage on attack roles, so my invisible attackers who can get invisible on a Bonus Action, where less effective against my Party.

Running monsters correctly is also a skill DMs need to learn and hone.


My personal pet peeve with CR is how PC’s increase so much in power with each level, that CR scaling doesn’t hold up. This often means that lesser CR monsters will very quickly stop being an interesting challenge. And there are so many more low CR monsters.

Fizban and Bigby’s have made it a lot better though.

Li Shenron

Second to that.
Yesterday my Group fought a Roper (CR 5). We were 4 5th Level Characters. So a medium encounters by the book.
We had full ressources.
Now, this is the beginning of a dungeon delve, so we need to look out for our ressources ...
An a roper is a mean Monster. 20AC, 96 HP restraining up to 6 creatures...

My wizard was the only one not caught in the tendrils, thanks to shield and a cloak of displacement. Which was good, because if that thing would have bitten my character she would have been out of combat.

So we had a Bardlock, cleric and rogue caught by the roper.
Trough lucky dice roles, the cleric could do an inflict wounds. The rogue never hit anything Trough bad dice rolls. The bardlock escaped in round 1 and used an Eldritch Blast in round 2.
my wizard threw two fireballs at the roper doing something like 65 damage. Together with the inflict wounds and the Eldritch Blast that was enough to kill the roper.

but it cost me 2 of my 4 fireball spell slots, a first level slot and the cleric a 2nd level slot for an upcast inflict wounds.

If I wouldn't have thrown the fireballs, the fight wouldn't have been over after 2 rounds, it would have taken 4 or 5, probably downing one or more characters, becoming a deadly encounter.
You know what... I've read your encounter summary, and before I read your other posts I was unable to determine whether you were complaining that it was too easy or too hard, or if otherwise you were happy that it met your expectations.

This tells me, that if you just describe how an encounter went at the table, different people will interpret it as anything between "it went horribly" to "it went perfectly". To complicate everything, while some people demand the game to meet their expectations, other people demand it to surprise them in order to be entertained, or perhaps we could say that their expectations is for the game to resolve in unexpected way.

All I could tell from your description, is that one PC had a lucky day and another had an unlucky day with the dice (both of which are in fact expected, and kind of cancelled out), while since you don't mention for the other two I suppose the dice rolls felt more average, and that you chose to use the 'big weapons' instead of saving them up for later, but because of this you actually won the encounter in only two rounds. That it would have become a deadly encounter if you didn't do it is only speculation.

From you other post I get it more clearly that for you this was tougher than expected. You blame the whole CR system for that, but I can't say if instead there's something wrong with the Roper's specific CR being underestimated (which is very different than saying the 'system' is wrong).

Just saying here, that it's too complicated to draw conclusions for many reasons:

  • what do people expect from a 'medium' encounter in the first place (many gamers believe they're so good at the game that 'medium' is an insult, and it should have barely scratched their HP)
  • how much the environment restricts or enhances the PC's possible choices of action
  • how good the players actually are in knowing the rules and playing well with their PC abilities, as well at tactics
  • how good the DM actually is at directing monsters to fight, and how much the DM is willing to play monsters to their full potential vs downplaying them
  • how rigid control does the DM pretend to have on the results (some DMs want to control so much, down to how many HP and spell slots the encounter should grind away from the party)

In theory CR is a simple safety number that a DM who is afraid of being too hard on the players can look at, and maybe decide not to use a monster like that yet.

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