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D&D 5E The Challenge Rating Goldilocks Thread- Too Hot, Too Cold, or Just Right?

How do you use Challenge Rating, if at all, to design encounters in 5e?

  • 1. I use CR as written, and I find it helpful.

    Votes: 20 26.7%
  • 2. I use CR as written, and I DO NOT find it helpful.

    Votes: 4 5.3%
  • 3. I modify CR, but continue to use it to plan encounters.

    Votes: 22 29.3%
  • 4. I don't use CR in 5e for reasons, but I'd like a CR system that worked.

    Votes: 16 21.3%
  • 5. I wouldn't use CR if you paid me.

    Votes: 5 6.7%
  • 6. I swear to you gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.

    Votes: 8 10.7%

  • Total voters
    75
  • Poll closed .

Nebulous

Legend
Ran an encounter with an oni (ogre mage) this weekend. Even with a half dozen support ghouls and ghasts, he was stomped before the end of his second turn. This was a five member 5th level party. A previous encounter with a single bullette tested the party to the max, and a fight with a group of 6 orc archers on the other side of a pit of 3 gelatinous cubes was a good challenge.
The difference was all in the terrain of the combat. The oni did enter combat invisible, but he quickly got surrounded. The party did so much damage so quickly (170+ points in one round), that it didn't matter if it had regeneration, spell-like abilities, or what.
So it was anti-climactic for me, but the players had fun stomping the BBEG of the campaign arc.

I had the PCs ambush an oni once, and a player critted him in the first round and killed him. It didn't even get to enter initiative. I was so sad.
 

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Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I use KFC to build encounters using CR. I cheat toward hard/deadly because I have an experienced crew who enjoy the combat game, but that's still within the CR usage guides. I find it useful to get a rough gauge on vase encounter difficulty, which I can then adjust to circumstances like terrain or non-hp-exhaustion win conditions.

However, it bears stating that I also get pretty close to the 6-8 encounter adventuring day recommendation, so that helps.
I use KFC a good bit (can't recall the last time I went to a KFC, but that's a different kind of chicken). I find it useful to get an idea of the ballpark I tend to budget for a Deadly encounter but split it up somewhat. The other big benefit it has is listing out monsters along with their sources, which helps cut down on search time. They also sometimes suggest some monsters that I've never heard of but end up working out nicely. I don't do CR math in any great detail, though. I just get it to Deadly and divvy things up a bit so that not every encounter hits all in one chunk. This includes exploration challenges that might do damage or burn resources or taking into account the fact that some foes won't fight to the death. I don't get 6-8 encounters per session, more like 3-4.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
That doesn't mean the CR system doesn't work as well as any can, it just means that tactics, environment and luck can play a huge role.
CRs are no more than a rough guide. One has to take the strengths and weaknesses of the party and the players in mind. Obviously a group without a cleric or Oath of Devotion paladin fighting a bunch of undead will be in for a much harder time than one with a cleric and a paladin. Players who don't work as a strong team can easily add an extra point or two to most adversaries' CRs whereas players who do will almost do the reverse. I've played/DMed with groups of both types. What a group of four characters that hardcore support each other can do will strongly eclipse what a group of six that do not.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
The lower the CR, the more accurate I find it to be. This is not surprising, as the levels rise the variance in options, experience of the players and other things makes the power of a party range wider.

Yes, absolutely. The math works much better overall across the entire game at the low levels. WotC made some choices that let the math get away from them at higher levels.

Each party and campaign is different in some way and will interact with the CR system slightly differently.

Unquestionably this is true and I'd add that the players themselves matter. If players don't make tactically sound choices, they won't be nearly as capable and this means CR is effectively higher.

The frustrating thing is when the CR system is not internally consistant with itself, as there are a few that are really not set right compared to other monsters in the same CR, though I can't think of examples off hand.

The banshee is a good example.
 

Wiseblood

Adventurer
Four 6th level players fought Strahd and his special friend from Strahd Must Die Again.

I might add there were no fireballs and the players did not have the “good items that could be found” no spoilers.

Strahd died his friend magicked up an escape. No casualties on the PC side.

Strahd is allegedly CR 15 and legendary. His vile compatriot CR?? (Yes that is double digits.)

PC’s Fighter, Bard, Ranger, Sorcerer no fireball and no Radiant Damage Spells. The Bard was charmed from the word go.
So three on three.

Team Bad Guys HP total 250+ And regen. Spells 5th and higher.

Good guys HP total about 100 with some healing no regen. Spells 3rd and lower.

So CR is in no way connected to the reality of the game.

Too many fiddly bits and RNG and skill gap make it fail routinely.
 

cmad1977

Hero
Four 6th level players fought Strahd and his special friend from Strahd Must Die Again.

I might add there were no fireballs and the players did not have the “good items that could be found” no spoilers.

Strahd died his friend magicked up an escape. No casualties on the PC side.

Strahd is allegedly CR 15 and legendary. His vile compatriot CR?? (Yes that is double digits.)

PC’s Fighter, Bard, Ranger, Sorcerer no fireball and no Radiant Damage Spells. The Bard was charmed from the word go.
So three on three.

Team Bad Guys HP total 250+ And regen. Spells 5th and higher.

Good guys HP total about 100 with some healing no regen. Spells 3rd and lower.

So CR is in no way connected to the reality of the game.

Too many fiddly bits and RNG and skill gap make it fail routinely.

Meanwhile I nearly wiped a group of 6 level 8 PCs and their revenant/paladin ally with Strahd by himself. AND they’re armed with both the symbol and the blade.
 

Retreater

Legend
I think there's an issue with monsters who punch below their CR (such as possibly the oni). And then CR needs to be revised that solo monsters are way easier than their CR suggests (which might be in Xanathars?)
 


Aebir-Toril

100100101010
CR only really works if you know exactly how tactically-minded the designers were, which is impossible. I still use CR as a very rough estimate of challenge, but because I'm a more tactical DM in general, some of my CR1 baddies punch above their CR. Other times, I can't find a good strategy for a monster, and my CR 11, home-brewed super-Bodak Hierophant of Annihilation is creamed by the party of 6th-7th level players. In general, CR should only be used as a rough measure.
 
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FireLance

Legend
I use CR (and the related encounter guidelines) as a starting point, and make the final adjustments based on my eyeballing of the PCs' and monsters' stats and abilities.

I personally believe that the reason most CRs break down (specifically, they seem too low) at high levels is because they are based on the unrealistic assumption (in most games, anyway) that the PCs have no magic items.

I'm sure no-one honestly believes that if a CR 10 opponent is a reasonable challenge for a 20th level fighter with no magic items, that same CR 10 opponent is a reasonable challenge for a 20th level fighter with a Legendary Belt of Giant Strength, a Very Rare Weapon +3, a Rare Shield +2, and a Rare Armor +1.

IMO, the lack of guidelines on how magic items affect what CR opponents would be a challenge to the PCs, or even an acknowledgement that PCs with magic items should be able to take on opponents with higher CRs, is one of the main failings of 5e.
 

Iry

Hero
I don't use it in general, since my monster tactics generate wildly different results. But I do use it to generate random encounters, just to stretch my improv muscles and see how I can fit strangeness into the narrative.

"Two gnomes? Here? Oookay. They are... lost spice traders arguing about which way to go."
"A minotaur? Here? She's a grizzled veteran who uses a longbow, having long since learned the dangers of charging in like her younger kin."
 

Tazawa

Explorer
Answered 1 but really between 1 and 3. I find it works best as a guideline.

It also works better with 6-8 medium to hard encounters a day. If you use it to prepare 1-2 deadly encounters a day, it becomes much less useful. If you want to have a single big battle against a boss monster, it’s best to do a quick play test and then adjust. Boss monsters should always have legendary actions, saves, or something similar. Minions aren’t always enough when characters focus fire.

I think the effective XP multipliers for multiple monsters is a little excessive. It should take into account the number of characters in a party. Large parties decimate solo creatures—there should probably be a reduction in effective XP for solo creatures versus parties of 5 or more.
 

Tazawa

Explorer
Online encounter generators like KFC don’t actually follow the CR system. They don’t ignore additional monsters significantly below the average CR when determining the effective CR multiplier. This artificially inflates the deadliness of the encounter, making it seem more difficult than it actually will be.

These encounter generators are still very useful tools but you need to be aware of their limitations and make adjustments.
 
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ad_hoc

(he/they)
Four 6th level players fought Strahd

But what did Strahd do? Fisticuffs?

Strahd is a completely unfair enemy. The party has very little they can actually do about him unless they find the Tarroka reading room. He can come and go at will and the PC's have his entire castle to worry about as he is harassing them.

Now, if instead, Strahd walks up to them and tries to punch them then yes, he's going to lose.

The book advises the DM how to use him and tells the DM to play unfair. This is Strahd's domain. He knows the PC's strengths and weaknesses. He knows where they are. He is the land. He is the ultimate terror.

That doesn't mean that CR is broken.

This sort of thing comes up a lot in these conversations.

How the enemy creatures are played is very important. CR is there as a warning sign of how potent these creatures can be.

In a similar conversation a person said the CR system is broken because their 1st or 2nd level PCs wiped out the entire Drow compound at the beginning of Out of the Abyss.

If the DM wants the players to win, they will win, regardless of the CR. That doesn't make CR broken.
 

I don't use CR, but that's because I'm old school and design the world without the PCs in mind.

The problem with any type of CR type system is that it will always have cracks and flaws that can create some serious issues. In both 3E and in 4E, one mathematician DM I know abused the system to create ridiculous challenges that were "fair" by the CR system, but were obvious TPK bait. Conversely, he showed how you could create ridiculous CRs that were super easy to overcome. These are obviously examples of a DM abusing the system, but it shows that an inexperienced DM that relies on them can accidentally create unbalanced encounters.
 

dave2008

Legend
I am a little confused by this poll @lowkey13. CR and encounter design are not the same thing. It seems like this poll is really about encounter design and not CR. CR is just a relative measurement of a monster's fighting ability. As such it works fine to determine how powerful on creature is to another. However, the real issue is how the encounter guidelines don't allow for flexibility for different style of play.

For example, I run two groups and in one group the encounter guidelines work just fine by RAW. In the other group not so much. However, with groups the CR provided is equally as useful, I just have to understand how to tweak the encounter budget for the two groups.

IME, people often say CR is "whack" or "groken" because the encounter guidelines don't work for them, but that is fault of the encounter guidelines, not the CR.
 

dave2008

Legend
The party did so much damage so quickly (170+ points in one round), that it didn't matter if it had regeneration, spell-like abilities, or what.
Wow, my 5th level party of 5-6 PCs could only muster about half of that. That just goes to show how varied groups can be, and how and encounter guide should really discuss how to adjust for these differences.
 

GreyLord

Legend
I have found Challenge Ratings to be a useful guideline.

And, that's what they are - a guideline.

I think most of the issues folks find around CR to be not in CR, but in how to properly use guidelines to best effect.

This is the option that I was looking for. This is most akin to what I use CR to do. I use it as guidelines to create encounters, but not something so strict that it cant' be stretched or made to accommodate the game that I am running.
 

dave2008

Legend
Four 6th level players fought Strahd and his special friend from Strahd Must Die Again.

I might add there were no fireballs and the players did not have the “good items that could be found” no spoilers.

Strahd died his friend magicked up an escape. No casualties on the PC side.

Strahd is allegedly CR 15 and legendary. His vile compatriot CR?? (Yes that is double digits.)

PC’s Fighter, Bard, Ranger, Sorcerer no fireball and no Radiant Damage Spells. The Bard was charmed from the word go.
So three on three.

Team Bad Guys HP total 250+ And regen. Spells 5th and higher.

Good guys HP total about 100 with some healing no regen. Spells 3rd and lower.

So CR is in no way connected to the reality of the game.

Too many fiddly bits and RNG and skill gap make it fail routinely.
Sounds like you went easy on them. I buffed Strahd to CR 17 and wiped out a group of 6 level 10 PCS with him. He is an absolute beast in his castle, if you want him to be.
 

I use CR just as a guide, too. But, then again, I’ve learned over the years that I don’t need to - and shouldn’t really try to - balance every encounter. Keep the players on their toes. Sometimes a combat is going to be very easy, which might lead to some Player paranoia about why it was so easy. And sometimes they’ll suffer casualties including PC death, which leads to players thinking about future tactics. Saves prep time, too, as I just try to build interesting encounters that are pertinent to the story and implicitly encourage solutions that are not always just swordswingfireball.

TL;DR: Balance schmalance
 

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