Challenge rating (cr) is supposed to tell a dungeon master how hard an encounter should be. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Cr in D&D.
Cr in D&D is a lie! You can design an encounter based around challenge rating but that will not ensure the encounter is balanced.
We all design encounters to be at least somewhat fair for our players and Cr is not the way to do so. Here is why Cr is not the reason to do so and some solutions for you.
Cr in D&D problems
When dungeon masters plan for their party they look for the appropriate Cr encounter on tables like these. I used to use these table exclusively to plan for how difficult an encounter would be. Do you know what I found out? These tables DO NOT carry over well to the table.
A few reasons why these tables do not carry over well to the table are:
- Players have varying skill
- The enviornment is a huge factor.
- Who has the advantage?
- How much resources do the players have/will spend?
- Different monsters are not the same difficulty, even if they are the same CR.
Now there are quite a few reasons here, but let’s go over why each one is a problem.
1. Different players have varying skill.
This point is extremely important. You can have a group of good powergamers face one monster and think that the monster’s abilities are easy to counter. A different group, more focused on roleplay, will possibly find that monster extremely difficult.
This also applies to new players. Veteran players may know how to kill a troll and can take on 3 at once. New players may not know how to kill a troll or not know how to make/use fire. When your new players end up not being able to kill one troll and there are two left, you may have to re-balance a bit.
2. The enviornment is a huge factor.
Your party encounters a gelatinous cube! If the party is on an open plain the players shouldn’t have an issue. Your players will outrun these cubes and shoot them till they are dead. Far too easy.
What if your players are instead locked in a room as a gelatinous cube falls onto them from the ceiling? What if the room is a 5×5 room that only fits the cube and the players? This means that when your cube lands the players will have to be swallowed up inside of it.
From the two situations, you can easily see how the environment can play a huge factor in a fight. This alone can make some creatures laughable or almost impossible regardless of the Cr.
3. Who has the advantage?
your players get the drop on the monster and kill it in one turn! That sounds awesome! But what if the monster gets the drop on the players?
The monster surprises the cloth armored cleric in the back and takes him down in one fell swoop. No one else has healing left, and the party might end up dead.
Both of these encounters could have used the same monster, or a monster with the same Cr. Both scenarios had completely different results, and this is why depending on who has the advantage you might need to increase or decrease the difficulty of the encounter.
Advantage may not just be the surprise round. An advantage could be positioning, terrain, information, anything.
Make sure you take into consideration who has the advantage when designing your encounters.
4. Player resources
Your players will use all their spells and abilities in the last fight, and now must fight a hard encounter for their level. This means that the encounter might turn into a deadly one.
How fresh the players are is a huge factor in the difficulty of a fight. If it is the first fight of the day then it should be easy no mater the difficulty. If it is the only fight of the day and the players know it a deadly encounter could be a medium or easy encounter.
This also applies to items, money, health, and future planning.
If the players are low on any of these things or just do not have a plan the encounter will be significantly more difficult than if they did have a substantial amount of what they lack.
My point is this; take into consideration your player’s resources to give accurately scaled encounters.
But what about monsters? Do different monsters matter?
If a monster is the same Cr as another monster, it does not mean that the encounter will be the same difficulty.
Some monsters are designed to act on subterfuge or make use of special abilities. If your players know the weakness of a monster (troll) or fight a monster that is not meant to fight then that fight will be easier.
Conversely, if your party did poorly against one monster that is designed for combat that does not mean another of the same Cr will give your party difficulty.
The reason for this is that sometimes a monster is a great counter to your party. Other times the party counters the monster.
In addition to this some monsters are just better than others. Take Dragons for example. They most of the time are much stronger than what their Cr shows. This is because they are freaking dragons and should be treated as such.
If a dragon uses all of its abilities intelligently (flying around, never going into melee) then the dragon should almost never lose.
Monsters differ in difficulty even if their Cr is the same, so what can you do to make a balanced encounter?
I have great news for you! Cr in D&D is not the best way to balance a game, but all of the other parts that we have covered are!
If you are trying to balance the game think of the environment. Adjusting the environment to make it more difficult or easy for your players will make encounters more balanced.
I could go over how the environment is a huge factor but I would suggest reading this article for more information on how to use the environment.
I will give you an article at the end to help you balance your encounters, but let’s cover one more important part that is not in the article.
Know your players
One thing not mentioned in balancing encounters is to know your players.
Each group is different. This is part of the reason why Cr in D&D is a lie. A group that is tactically inept and doesn’t have much experience in or enjoy combat will do worse.
As you can guess, a group that has a lot of combat experience in D&D and other games are going to fare much better in combat.
For the more experienced group you can throw much more challenging encounters that would spell death for a different group.
Know your players and adjust the difficulty of the encounter accordingly.
Cr in D&D a lie! I love saying it, but Cr is a lie.
You cannot trust a table to automatically make a balanced encounter. There are too many factors at play that need to be thought of for just a simple Cr table.
If you are interested in how to balance your encounters, read the article on balancing encounters for 5e D&D. This article will help you put some of the pieces together to make a wonderful encounter for your party.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!