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5E CR and Encounter Difficulty: Is It Consistently Wrong?

Dausuul

Legend
Lots of people lately have been complaining about the CR/XP budget system. The general sentiment seems to be that PCs are walking all over encounters that are supposed to be Hard or Deadly.

Personally, I am not fussed about this. CR can't account for player skill; a group of tactical masterminds is going to shred encounters that would TPK a group of newbies, and you can't expect the rulebook to tell you which kind of group you've got. What I'm more interested in is, even if CR is wrong, is it wrong consistently? In other words, does your group have the same amount of trouble with all Deadly encounters? Or do they stomp some and get slammed by others?

If the system produces consistent results, then it remains useful: Once you figure out that your group can handle a Deadly encounter with ease, works a bit to handle Deadly x2, and struggles with Deadly x3, you can plan accordingly. However, if two encounters that are ostensibly the same XP budget pose wildly different threats, that means the encounter difficulty system isn't really working at all.

What's your experience? Are encounter threat levels reasonably consistent (after allowing for things like use of daily resources)? Or are they unpredictable?
 

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DaveDash

Explorer
In 3rd edition using the core rules only, I could build encounters using the EL system and get a predictable result. Sure some cases were not predictable, but most were.

5e due to bounded accuracy and CR done by feel (designer quote in a podcast apparently), you never know what you're going to get. I've had life and death encounters against the party who are resting (low resources) and they cake walked it. It's harder to challenge them when you want to, without using something so absurdly high above their level.

Also the higher level you go, the less accurate CR seems to be.

The system does not produce consistent results.
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
What's your experience? Are encounter threat levels reasonably consistent (after allowing for things like use of daily resources)? Or are they unpredictable?
My experience, mostly tier I (levels 1-4), is that, at those levels, it's been a pretty good indicator. Better than 3.X CR's... Especially since the adjustments for party size in the DMG.
 

Tanaka Chris

First Post
It'd also vary adventuring group to adventuring group I'd reckon.

One with a silence spell handy or a cleric vs undead would fare better against certain mages and undead hordes so the CR might be easier for them, but other teams would fare better in say, an all out melee.
 

Cernor

First Post
Everyone's dancing around what I think is the most important point to know about the CR/XP system: They're made for parties where everyone uses standard array or point buy (rolling scores tends to give far more powerful characters), without any magic items. Adding one or the other bumps up the power of your party and skews the table (because CR is only really useful to determine its XP value). It also assumes players and DMs of average skill.

Everyone I've seen complaining about it has ignored or just didn't know its underlying assumptions: it seems to have worked well for me when I used it.
 

Authweight

First Post
Something I have noticed in the CR system is that it works on a strange scale. The difference between CR 1 and 2 is a great deal bigger than the difference between 2 and 3. This makes sense, because there's a considerably bigger difference between PCs level 1 and 2 than there is between PCs level 2 and 3. But it makes balancing encounters very tricky.

In terms of "a single monster of CR equal to your party," I think CR is basically consistent. It breaks down when you slide it up and down in comparison to the party's level. That will require a great deal more experience to really get a feel for, IMO.
 

Tormyr

Adventurer
It also seems like some cases of parties waltzing through deadly encounters don't account for the rest of the encounters in the adventuring day. Sure, they made it through the deadly encounter, but that only accounts for 1/3 of the experience in the adventuring day. The other thing is that I have noticed several people expect a deadly encounter to reliably kill a PC. People have remarked that deadly encounters are not deadly even though everyone was on the ground at one point or another. Deadly encounters only have the potential to kill.

I for one have found the XP budgets to work quite well. The party still reliably makes it through everything, but I can tell which encounters were more difficult.
 

Authweight

First Post
I also feel that the basic nature of 5e makes balancing difficult. Everyone does lots of damage, and fights can be very swingy. If the party gets the drop on the enemy, they can wipe a very difficult encounter without much trouble. If they derp into a fight unprepared, a simple combat can become much tougher.

In 5e, the effects of context outside the immediate fight scene (availability of rests, surprise, positioning before battle is engaged) often trump the things that happen in the middle of the fight.
 

What's your experience? Are encounter threat levels reasonably consistent (after allowing for things like use of daily resources)? Or are they unpredictable?
Neither consistent nor unpredictable. I can eyeball a monster and say, "That CR monster is a pushover: since it has only 30 movement, Int 1, and no stealth abilities, a smart party can just disengage and kill it from range." Then I look at orcs and say, "Due to the Aggressive trait, CR is pretty accurate; if the party gets advantage via ambush or similar, they can handle large numbers of orcs, but in a white room scenario the orc's full HP/damage will come into play and it will be as deadly as CR implies." Then I look at Intellect Devourers and say, "Can possess humanoid hosts to attack from stealth; deals perma-stun on an Int save with a special condition on top; can auto-kill anybody who is asleep and take over their body; this guy is wildly and crazily dangerous even to 10th level parties, although variance on the outcomes will be high."

The main thing that keeps a monster from being very deadly is a low Int score, because then it won't use tactics. Therefore, an Iron Golem in an abandoned tomb is a pushover, but an Iron Golem under the active direction of the artificer who created him is a credible threat.
 

Authweight

First Post
The main thing that keeps a monster from being very deadly is a low Int score, because then it won't use tactics. Therefore, an Iron Golem in an abandoned tomb is a pushover, but an Iron Golem under the active direction of the artificer who created him is a credible threat.
I'm not convinced there should always be a direct correlation between int score and tactical cleverness. I feel like a pack of wolves could very well have more tactical skill than a disorganized room full of scholars.
 

GMforPowergamers

First Post
I'm not convinced there should always be a direct correlation between int score and tactical cleverness. I feel like a pack of wolves could very well have more tactical skill than a disorganized room full of scholars.
yes my chess club all have int of 13+ with atleast one 16 in there... the football team bearly matches the average 10... with atleast one 8 in there an no one above 13... in a fight I will bet on the football team.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I've found the CR system to be quite consistent so far. Obviously when the rogue gets the drop on the enemy (which he loves to do) the fights are much easier than indicated, but that just seems like common sense. In direct confrontations, barring a long hot / cold streak of the dice, it has produced expected results.
 

I'm not convinced there should always be a direct correlation between int score and tactical cleverness. I feel like a pack of wolves could very well have more tactical skill than a disorganized room full of scholars.
<tangent>

FWIW, I was oversimplifying when I said "low Int score", and I agree with your example (wolves vs. scholars).

Wolves will still not have extremely sophisticated tactics--I've always run them as mostly limited to ambushes and night attacks (if the D&D combat system were more sophisticated then they'd attack to disrupt and exhaust, but in the rules as written it's more efficient to simply go for the kill) but that is more than the scholars are likely to come up with. (Or rather, the scholars might come up with extremely sophisticated tactics but there is no guarantee the sophistication will actually enhance effectiveness.)

</tangent>

The larger point here is that all combat encounters with unsophisticated tactics and melee sluggers resemble each other, no matter how much you scale up HP/damage and therefore CR. They are all vulnerable to the exact same counters. This ceases to be true if tactics change: an earth elemental or bulette doing hit-and-run using burrowing and tremorsense requires different counters than an Iron Golem.
 
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DaveDash

Explorer
Here's how a lot of my encounters have gone. Some of these are custom monsters, but they have fitted in reasonable well with the DMG guidelines for creating monsters.

Party started at level 11, and is composed of Paladin, Lore Bard, Abjurer Wizard, and Light Cleric.

"Life and Death" refers to greater than deadly.

encounter outcomes.JPG
 

"Life and Death" refers to greater than deadly.
Per DMG guidelines, there is nothing greater than deadly. 1st level party fighting Tiamat? It's over the Deadly difficulty threshold, so it's "Deadly."

For a while there was a bug in kobold.club which caused people to misinterpret the difficulty guidelines as ceilings rather than floors. It's fixed now, but from the looks of it you may have stumbled into that same error. For example, 4 11th level PCs vs. 3 Ropers is 10,800 XP, which is over the 9600 XP "Hard" threshold but not up to the 14,400 XP "Deadly" threshold, so it is a Hard encounter. Your spreadsheet has it listed as "Deadly." Similarly, 1 Ghost + 1 Stone Golem is also Hard, not Deadly. 4 Elementals is indeed Deadly though.
 
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DaveDash

Explorer
Per DMG guidelines, there is nothing greater than deadly. 1st level party fighting Tiamat? It's over the Deadly difficulty threshold, so it's "Deadly."

For a while there was a bug in kobold.club which caused people to misinterpret the difficulty guidelines as ceilings rather than floors. It's fixed now, but from the looks of it you may have stumbled into that same error. For example, 4 11th level PCs vs. 3 Ropers is 10,800 XP, which is over the 9600 XP "Hard" threshold but not up to the 14,400 XP "Deadly" threshold, so it is a Hard encounter. Your spreadsheet has it listed as "Deadly." Similarly, 1 Ghost + 1 Stone Golem is also Hard, not Deadly. 4 Elementals is indeed Deadly though.
Hmm ok. I used to think it worked this way until reading the example in one of the earlier free rulesets. I'll have to go and double check.
 

Tormyr

Adventurer
Hmm ok. I used to think it worked this way until reading the example in one of the earlier free rulesets. I'll have to go and double check.
The first version of the Basic DMG had difficulty thresholds explained as "everything up to this number is a hard encounter." Version 0.2 of the free DMG replaced that with "everything over this threshold is a hard encounter."
 

Shadowdweller00

First Post
I'm not convinced there should always be a direct correlation between int score and tactical cleverness. I feel like a pack of wolves could very well have more tactical skill than a disorganized room full of scholars.
But once you start putting those scholars in neat, tidy rows...watch out! (Apologies, couldn't resist)
 

DaveDash

Explorer
The first version of the Basic DMG had difficulty thresholds explained as "everything up to this number is a hard encounter." Version 0.2 of the free DMG replaced that with "everything over this threshold is a hard encounter."
Interesting thanks. That changes things a bit. I never bothered to reread that section carefully enough obviously.
 

The first version of the Basic DMG had difficulty thresholds explained as "everything up to this number is a hard encounter." Version 0.2 of the free DMG replaced that with "everything over this threshold is a hard encounter."
Oh, no wonder everybody read it "wrong" then--it wasn't wrong, we just didn't notice the delta when it changed. That explains a ton, thanks.
 

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