Monday, October 17, 2016

Challenge Rating Is Just A Number

We're all familiar with challenge rating, and how it is supposed to work. Under ideal circumstances, a party at a certain level (APL, or average party level, is the term we use for this) will be able to take on a creature, trap, or other encounter that functions at their level. Challenging encounters will be of a CR equal to the APL+1, hard encounters are APL+2, and epic encounters are APL+3.

The key word here is ideal circumstances. And as anyone who has ever sat behind a DM screen knows, your plans will never survive their first brush with the party.

Player characters... not even once.
Challenge rating is a tool that deals in generalities. That's all well and good, but you aren't DMing for some theoretical group. You're DMing for your group, and for the characters and players sitting in front of you.

Beating The CR Doesn't Make Your Character "Broken"

I bring this up because it seems there are a lot of dungeon masters out there who are under the impression that CR is some kind of ironclad metric, and that if characters deviate from the "accepted" level of challenge, then those characters must somehow be illegitimate. If the players are following the rules, and playing the game how it's supposed to be played, it should be impossible for them to punch 3 and 4 ranks outside their CR on every, single encounter.

Or so the logic goes.

It is just science.
If you are one of those people who buy into this argument, and use it as a way to criticize characters, builds, or concepts for being "too powerful," then I would like to point out some holes in the logic.

First and foremost, CR cannot predict what kinds of characters show up to the fight, or the abilities and equipment they have available. Say, for example, that the DM throws out a Babau. This demonic assassin is traditionally considered a solid CR 6 encounter. So let's say you have a 6th level paladin, good-aligned warpriest, good-aligned cleric, and a ranger with demons as a favored enemy. The spells and class features those characters bring to the fight are going to smash a demon that's meant to be at their level. If the party in question brought bigger guns to this fight, say they have cold iron weapons to ignore its DR, or weapons with either the demon bane or holy enchantments on them, then the thing will be lucky to last more than a round or two.

If you flip the script on that fight, though, and you have a party made up of a brawler, a monk, an evil-aligned cleric, and a ranger with undead as a favored enemy, that demon is going to be a serious problem. The class features that the first group had that reduced a demon's threat level aren't present, and none of them are built to fight demons. If they don't have the appropriate items to hand that allow them to overcome the Babau's damage reduction, and they don't have resistance to its acid, then this party is going to be in for a slog.

Sometimes, though, advantage can come from something as simple as proper use of tactics, terrain, and environment. For example, say you have a party made up of half-orcs, tieflings, and a dwarf. Everyone in this party has darkvision. If they are assaulting a bandit camp where all the bandits are humans, and they're doing it in the dark of the night, the party has an inherent advantage. If you flip it around, and have a human party being ambushed by orcs in the middle of the night, then the advantage goes the other way in terms of concealment, darkness, and challenge.

Now, you might argue that a party should know what it's going up against before a fight starts, and that it should be prepared for every eventuality. Sometimes that's the case, but sometimes there's no way to know. After all, if you're invading the den of a dreaded necromancer, why would you expect him to have made pacts with demons to guard his lair? But that might be what happens.

Addressing The "Overpowered" Myth

As I said last week in my post "Multiclassing" is Not A Dirty Word, there is no such thing as an overpowered character, or an overpowered party. There are effective characters, and effective parties, but being good in a particular situation doesn't mean players are somehow breaking the rules. It means it is your responsibility, as the DM, to craft a situation that is unique to your group, and your party, in order to challenge them.

You have access to every spell, every feat, every piece of equipment, and every monster. You could put Cthulhu and his pet elder wyrms on the mat, if you so chose. Your players cannot defeat you. And they aren't trying to. They're simply trying to accomplish the challenge you have laid before them.

Whatever that challenge happens to be.
Your goal, as the DM, should be to give your players a challenge that is geared for them. This isn't a standardized test, where everyone takes the same exam. If you have a team of experienced, serious players who have created a party that works as a unit, and can mop the floor with the standard layer of difficulty, then what are you doing messing around with the standard layer of difficulty? Bring out your big guns, and let them fight, sneak, and practice diplomacy against something that is operating on the same level they are.

If students are blowing through their third-grade schoolwork like it's not even there, you don't chastise them for not being normal, average third-graders. You let them skip a grade, or maybe two, until you find the level of challenge they're actually operating at. CR is a way to ballpark where your players should be, but if they're not feeling challenged, maybe it's time for harder traps, bigger monsters, or just tweaking your encounters' strategy.

Just remember, it's not about beating your players. That's never a question. It's about challenging them so your story can operate at the optimum level for keeping interest, and involvement.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hope there were some folks out there who found it useful. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, all you have to do is stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a small donation. A $1 a month tip is all I ask, and sweet swag comes along with it. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start now?


  1. Well said. I'm doing some Session 0 stuff with my Changeling players because I want to know what they really want to be good at. I want to give them the occasional chance to show off what they've put their points into and also throw them some challenges they aren't optimized for and see them improvise.

    One reversal on CR: Tucker's Kobolds. For readers who might not have heard of them, Tucker was a GM who had players go up against a fortress of kobolds who behaved intelligently and built all sorts of hazards into their fortress, putting the PCs at their mercy. In a straight fight, a kobold may have a fractional CR, but what made them dangerous was numbers, intelligent tactics, and a fortified position.

    The lesson: Don't underestimate how factors outside a monster's stat block might affect how challenging they can be. Terrain, traps, numbers, tactics, being prepared for the PCs, knowing the PCs' weaknesses, etc. The reverse is also applicable: Players can turn those factors towards their own advantage.

  2. And then there are the "you must be this tall to ride" monsters. Shadow Demon doesn't care if you're 4 4th level characters, or 20 4th level characters - you are all dead.

  3. Good advice Sir! Question: What if there is one PC in the party that got lucky with her ability rolls and is WAY more powerful than the rest of the party? I found it really difficult to challenge the powerful PC without slaughtering the other characters in her party. Thoughts? :-)

    1. High ability scores do not an effective character make. Even if you're REALLY lucky, the biggest mechanical difference from an ability score is going to be a +2 or a +3. Hardly something worth sweating over, especially as the game goes on.

      If you're concerned about someone being a better optimizer than the rest of the party, then it's your job to sit down with everyone else and help them better achieve their goals, and understand their strengths. A bard isn't going to be the same kind of brute powerhouse that the barbarian is, but with boosts, debuff magic, and skills, they will excel in different situations, and be able to help no matter what's happening.

      So, again, attributes are a tiny drop in the bucket. If someone has a strength or casting stat of 20 (highest you can start with if you're rolling stats), and even one or two other stats in the high teens, that isn't going to create a power gap. It will mostly be taken care of by level 5. It's the proper use of class features, feats, and other options that will create genuine effectiveness.