The Concept of CR-Appropriate Challenges is Too Ingrained in Our Minds

I’m beginning to have deep misgivings about the slavish adherence to CR-appropriate challenges in adventures. Of course, I’m not actually against CR-appropriate challenges; far from it. However, I’m beginning to think that any decent adventure should feature at least a few fiendishly tough and blindingly easy encounters.

Everything's Better With Tentacles (for the GM) by Matt Morrow

Everything’s Better With Tentacles (for the GM) by Matt Morrow

 

Spoilers Ahead for Curse of the Lady’s Light (part two of the Shattered Star adventure path from Paizo).

For example, toward the end of a recent session of my Shattered Star campaign, two PCs—cut off from their fellows and lost—knowingly opened a set of double doors and gate-crashed a huge party. At the party were roughly 40 revellers and a tremendously powerful and legendary wizard. Of course, as the mob of enraged revellers hurled themselves at the two seemingly doomed PCs I called an end to the session (as we were almost out of time and it’s good to end on a cliff-hanger).

This was good as it built tension, but it was bad as it gave the players time to think. It seems the idea of CR-appropriate encounters is so deeply engrained in the “water supply” of Pathfinder that even children get it. A few days before the next session, my 12-year-old son who has only been playing for about a year, was telling me how everything was going to be alright. His rationale was either:

  • The whole thing is an illusion or
  • All the revellers are 1st-level commoners and thus he can easily slaughter them from range with his bow (he plays the ranger Zainnis in the session write-ups).

He observed that if the situation was anything but that, the encounter wouldn’t be CR-appropriate! If a 12-year-old with under a year’s worth of experience can work it out, I’m pretty sure every other player at the table had an inkling as to the truth (at least subconsciously). Goodbye tension. Goodbye consequences of doing something really stupid (bursting into a huge hall full of people in the depths of a dungeon while two-thirds of the party are elsewhere). Goodbye caution.

It reminded me of an incident that occurred many years ago during the last Gen Con UK. I was helping run the Living Greyhawk events at the convention when I was called upon to adjudicate a complaint made by a player. (I was on the Circle of Six at the time and thus I wielded immense power—often capriciously like a bored god). It seemed that in one of the modules, the PCs had spotted an army approaching them as they were leading some refugees to safety. Any sane person would have beat a retreat—and that’s what the module assumed—but of course two of the players didn’t do that. They charged, and they died.

Why did they charge? In the ensuing appeal, it transpired the players believed they’d just face a series of “fair” encounters and that eventually they’d either buy time for the refugees to flee or they’d drive off the army. That’s right, they thought they’d drive off the whole army. Both of them.

Of course, Living style events are somewhat different to normal home games, but the general principle remains the same. The players believed they’d only face a set number of foes based on what the system said the designer was allowed to throw at them. Thus, they did something very, very stupid.

It’s an old adage that the sense of achievement you get from achieving something is directly linked to how hard it was to achieve. I’m beginning to wonder if we are doing our players a disservice by making everything “fair,” “appropriate” or—dare I say it—“balanced”. As a player, some of my greatest, longest lived gaming memories come from salvaging victory from disaster and/or beating almost impossible odds.

Again, I guess it comes down to how much the players trust their GM. (The more I think about it, the more trust is absolutely central to the game and the hobby). A good GM would never just dump a tremendously tough encounter on the PCs without warning. For example, a great wyrm just flying down and attacking a 1st-level party is beyond unfair. However, if the same 1st-level party sees the same dragon flying over head and launches a volley of arrows at it on the assumption they can kill it, that’s their problem.

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What Do You Think?

Am I a fool? An I intent on crushing my players’ fun and making them cry? Alternatively, do you agree? Let me know in the comments below.

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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50 thoughts on “The Concept of CR-Appropriate Challenges is Too Ingrained in Our Minds

  1. As you pointed out it seems to have affected the community by creating a situation where players (and GMs) consider any combat stepping significantly out of the appropriate “safe range” to be bad design. I worry that mentality will limit designers and GMs thematically and creatively causing them to only make “safe range” adventures for play and product. Thus encouraging players and GMs to think adventures can only have encounters in the “safe range” who eventually go on to write new things that also get stuck in that safe range. It’s a cycle I work hard to break at my home table.

  2. You are doing your players a disservice by making adventures safe, if you are making adventures safe.

    The idea of CR is that the GM should make the challenges appropriate for the PCs. The idea of the original game was that the players, not the GM, should determine what they were capable of facing. In then falls on the GM only to make sure that encounters have enough of a “footprint” to give the players the clues they need.

    Many of the divination spells in rpgs, far from being useless, were designed to allow the players to have some control over the information they had. You might not be 100% sure that your information was correct, but you did have more context to make decisions with.

    The idea of “level appropriate” monsters helped players to decide, but the GM was encouraged to (1) trick the players as to what level they were on, (2) include occasional non-level appropriate monsters, and (3) create varying schemes (distance from entrance, for instance) rather than dungeon level to determine threat range. The players were aware of this. It was their job to pay attention and adapt.

  3. There’s a reason why you keep some food in your pack. It’s not to feed your belly. It’s to throw at the rabid wolves who are charging you and give you time to run away. Oil, too, works to interpose a threat between you and things that want to hurt/eat/dissolve you.

    I understand the purpose of the CR section in 3.x/pathfinder. But that goes out the window when the actual encounter takes place. A goblin, on his home territory, is going to know where the traps are and how to avoid them. A lion is going to use stealth and sneak up on the party, not give it a chance to fight back.

    Anyone who fights fair isn’t fighting for their life.

  4. I agree. When I’m running a session, I’m always looking to the dice and encounter rarity.
    Sometimes the ‘the boss’ shows up, sometimes is a ‘normal’ encounter, but I always let the situation and dice set the table, knowing that the story will evolve with the game play.

  5. I agree with you, which is why I don’t really like linear adventures. What I really loved about the first adventure I got for 3rd edition, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, was the sandbox feel of the thing. Literally, the characters could try any number of things and there were different ways to get into the dungeon. However, some areas were tougher than others, and most groups that I read about needed to learn the value of running away. I am also currently running Curse of the Lady’s Light, although I’m using Golarion rather than Greyhawk, and I really like how its not liner. A party, like yours, could skip whole sections of the dungeon if they wanted. The group I am DMing is following everything as laid out, but a group could skip most the first level by descending the waterfall. Also, with three entry points, the group has choices about how to get into the dungeon, and even choices about how to gain access to those entry points. Thankfully, my group is all people new to RPGs, so they don’t understand balance as part of the game.

  6. I agree with not making everything CR-appropriate. I started playing AD&D back in the 80’s, and there was no such thing as CR-appropriate back then. You made decisions based off what the DM told you and what you knew, and it was either a good decision or a bad decision. That was totally part of the fun, and the challenge of the game. If I know that everything is going to be something I can absolutely kill if it crosses my path, then where is the actual challenge? I’m a fan of old-school gaming where decisions you make have consequences, and you have to play smart to survive. In a game like that you truly feel like you’ve done something really cool if you survive to the end, and if you don’t survive it’s almost guaranteed that you went out gloriously! It’s definitely a matter of trusting your GM, but in my mind if you don’t trust your GM then why are you even sitting down at a table to play with them anyway?

  7. I have always considered CR a tool so I can predict how difficult an encounter could be. For my own adventures I’ve really never tried to ensure CR = APL.

    As for running, from an analysis I did a little over nine years ago:

    Hrm. Actually, the above analysis depends a fair amount on the tactical
    ability of your players. If they blithely charge in they’re going to
    get mulched. You might want to consider (if appropriate) softening
    things a bit by staggering participants entering the fight. I wouldn’t,
    if the PCs have any chance of escaping before TPK (which at their level
    they *should*… if they don’t have plans to run away then they’ve never
    needed them, and that’s a damn shame).

  8. I completely agree. When I started playing and DMing back in the early 80s the big adventures GDQ/T/S series etc. were not focused on balanced encounters that any party could overcome, but we’re focused on player judgement. If players pushed too far, or were reckless, then it was likely to be game over. As a result it felt more ‘dangerous’ and I think victory the sweeter for it…..
    The challenges didn’t feel arbitrary or designed to be lethal, but they required thought….and one could not take for granted that combat would result in a positive outcome.
    I’m not sure when that changed exactly, but I detected it in the first days of 3.0…..

  9. I started playing back in 1978, and you had to judge from the information given how to deal with an encounter. “Fair” was not in our vocabulary.

  10. The other part to remember is player skill and optimization. Four level 1 PCs with a 15or buy and feats/options from only the core book will have a tough time with, say, three goblins. Those same PCs optimized by very experienced players using non-core sources will likely wipe the floor with this encounter.

    That is why I agree with your opinion here Mr Broadhurst. If you have an opportunity to modify your encounters then you can (and in my opinion should) tailor them to not only your PC’s actual power level but also the players’ experience level as well.

    A note to new GM’s: do not be afraid to add monsters/villains with a CR = APL+5 or more. There are MANY ways the PCs could use to get the hint this encounter is out of their league: Knowledge checks, Diplomacy for Gather Information, divination spells; even just using context clues. A young green dragon is a CR 8 threat that lives in a forest, breathes acid and casts Entangle at will. If you know ahead of time this Large creature is lurking in the woods where your level 2 party is going you could have myths and rumors, set the scene with acid-scarred terrain, Large sized tracks, and even a briar patch inexplicably containing a body with no earthly way they could’ve gotten there (left behind after the Entangle ended). Hopefully the players put all this together when they spot the beast descending through the canopy in the distance.

    Finally there are lots of ways to get around such encounters for smart players. A simple Smokestick is cover enough to escape behind in some cases. There are spells, combat options, and skills PCs can use. Take a situation with level 1 PCs we recently faced: APL 1 traveling through a winter woodland when we were accosted by a CR 4 fey creature. We could’ve fought it but after determining what it was our monk instead decided we should Intimidate it for info. One Enlarge Person spell later and the little bearded guy was singing like a canary. Since it was suitably scared we just kept going and left it behind.

    Finally a vote for low CR encounters. Sometimes you just want to feel like a tough guy! You’ve been fighting through dungeons for four levels and you’re on your way back through the wild hills heading for home and a well deserved rest. Out pops 6 goblins and you just grin. “How quaint” you smile as you pull your +1 Flaming longsword and see terror in their eyes. Low CR encounters are a nice way to remind players just how much they’ve done. Savvy players in my games have even spared villains in these fights using the enemy instead as an indentured servant.

    • Mark, you are absolutely right. If a GM is going to include tremendously tough encounters, he also needs to include tremendously easy encounters. It’s not just “realistic” but also fair. And it can give rise to more negotiations and role-playing than normal. Great point.

  11. The CR/EL appearance in 3.0 didn’t really jump out at the time as different, although as a mechanic it was an obviously new measure, but I did not feel that it was taking the game in a new direction from 2nd…..and I guess that the mindset may have been manifesting in the latter days of that system…..

  12. Hear, hear!!
    I am a proponent of allowing such encounters to both solidify the gravity and (if you will) “reality” of the characters’ situation.
    Moreover, if done correctly, it can also set up a long-term foe or competition, goals, and ongoing harassments for story effect, clues, and one day – the “ultimate showdown”. : )

    • And by “clues”, I mean – for example – if there is another party (of the NPC competition) which the PCs stumble upon going for some place or thing, if can be an indicator that there is something important to be found or that the players’ party is headed in the correct direction!

  13. Yeh, i see your point, been gaming since the dark ages, and generally i think that there is some level of expectation that every encounter will be ‘level’ appropriate. But over the years of running games i’ve stopped doing that. When my players see a dragon, they run; if they see an army, they run; if they see a cute little kitten in the road, they usually draw weapons, then run (well not always). They have learned that what they see in a world of magic is not always what it seems. A good game ahould be built around story, not game rules.

  14. I find the that “CR appropriate” is a good guideline but should not be used as a set-in-stone rule. As a GM we know our players and can scale the encounter as needed. Sometimes it is great to give the players a more difficult encounter to build their teamwork skills. Other times an ecounter with weaker creatures can give the players a chance to feel mighty and perhaps show mercy. In contrast, a novice group my need encounted scaled back a bit while they learn the game. Additionally, when a party runs into a significantly higher CR encounter it can be a great time for roleplay as the characters try to escape, talk their way out of a fight, bargain with the beast/person, or come up with some unexpected way to win!

  15. Many years ago I put a werewolf in a first level scenario, the idea being to get the party to plan, organise and eventually stop the werewolf. When two characters were in a farmhouse and saw the werewolf prowling about outside it was meant to be an atmospheric reveal of the big bad but one player said ‘quick while we can surprise it’ and got both of them killed. Afterwards he had a go at me for what was obviously an overpowered encounter. My reply ‘if it was obviously overpowered why did you attack and not keep of of sight’ shocked the player who said he had never considered the possibility of an unwinnable encounter in a game. He did take the lesson on board and I learned to try and convey the tone of my campaigns better to players that were new to me.

    • I think you did the player a favour (sort of). In the long term the lesson he learned from this encounter will serve him well. Thinking before mindlessly charging into battle is a handy skill to develop!

  16. I love the idea of having my players enjoy themselves over the course of our game. I need to challenge them, provide them with incentive to push on, and allow them room to think for themselves. I don’t look at this as, ‘it’s my job to give them a great story.’ If we wanted a story, we’d all go home and play on our smart phones with a closed book right next to us. No, we want to socialize and enjoy ourselves.

    Sometimes the group wants to slay orcs after a grueling Monday at work. Sometimes we want to have a puzzle vex us while we’re chomping on dinner. Sometimes we want a social encounter. Then there are times to have hours of play around the battle mat, talking about going through a dungeon. There are spells to discuss with other player while the DM and another character are resolving a nasty trap forty feet down the hall. The cleric will need to be on standby, for almost everything.

    Then there is the moment when the DM says, “roll for initiative.” And suddenly, places are cleared, the clipboard with the character sheet or the tablet is front and center while the action economy ticks away.

    Things that kick the characters collective butts don’t always have to be mass slogs or boss fights. They can be anything I just described above. I love this forum as the people who attend it, get it, they’ve played a couple of campaigns. It’s a relief. Thanks, Creighton!

  17. What’s CR?

    I refer back to your article re old style gaming. Too often in gamin sessions I see DM’s leeting players make a dice roll and giving them the rewards without thought. Oh I rolled a search check and searched an 80′ by 80′ room. Sorry, Tell me where you are searching. Knowledge rolls, read the skill, (3.5 here) you only get to know the monster on a 15, 1 thing with each additional 5. Don’t just give up the info Mr DM, make the players go ‘oh shit, I thought it was just a ………….’ but the DM hasn’t told me I know everything. Kill meta gaming in its infancy!!!

  18. I’m in general agreement as well, with one little caveat. There are players out there who aren’t into the game so much because of the challenge of combat but because of the story they can tell together with the GM. Players who want to rescue the princess and live to tell the tale, so to say. Those players don’t mind fighting per se (because which big hero hasn’t to fight to save the day), but they want to be sure that they don’t die in any meaningless random combat encounter on their way to the princess. And due to the relationship between CR and XP, there are often a lot of those especially in published adventures.

    So I’m not sure if the expectation of the players is really the fault of the CR system or if it stems from players never learned the old school way of things or even (*gasp*) aren’t even interested in learning old school because they have other preferences. I know I have.

    What this all comes down to is that I’m convinced that the possibility of character death must be real, especially if the players do something stupid (like attacking a whole army). On the other hand, I want to know when I bring the PCs in a potentially fatal situation, because just dying due to bad luck with dice rolls isn’t much fun at all. And CR (while not perfect) helps me to finetune the difficulty of encounters to a degree the players are still comfortable with.

    • Well, 3.x took lots of power away from GMs and placed it into the hands of the players. “You get X amount of treasure for a specific CR, you may custom build your character as you wish, the DM has specific mechanical limitations he must abide by.”

      If you’re focused on “story” then you’ll do all sorts of things that short the players’ experience. Fudging dice rolls is the usual symptom of GMs. Players expecting to “win” all their encounters is another symptom from the other side of the screen.

      But what provided the better experience, “I played the story according to the way the adventure was written and saved the princess” or “Despite the random encounter with the goblins, the magnificently failed save that fried our wizard, and our fighter nearly biting it, we saved the princess”?

      I no longer roll dice behind a screen, because that way the players know I’m honest. All the time. I don’t throw them into encounters they can’t win; I place things that they should know, through investigation, they can’t handle. Just like real life.

      • Doug writes: “Well, 3.x took lots of power away from GMs and placed it into the hands of the players. “You get X amount of treasure for a specific CR, you may custom build your character as you wish, the DM has specific mechanical limitations he must abide by.”

        Where does it read that? CR has *always* been a guideline, not a rule. 3.x is no more constrained than AD&D or 5e. The DM has never had any constraints in any version of the D&D rules.

  19. I’ve played off an on since the late 70s, and i agree that the worst thing that can happen to a gaming group is for the players to become complacent. The best campaigns in my memory are the ones where adventure is somebody else, in deep trouble, far away, and survival (or success) is not guaranteed. Critical fumble? That could get you killed and make you look silly while doing it 🙂

  20. I agree, never let the CR get in the way of the story. And really if you look at the game the way the designers do, you can play the resource management game. Here’s about 5 low-level encounters that are really there to drain you a little bit, oh and here is the BBEG, what’s that you say? You already used up all your healing? Well better suck it up buttercup!

    Mixing it up, some easy, some average, some hard, some so hard that the players have to flee. That is what life is, remember the Fellowship spent half their time running away, and the dwarves needed a magic mcguffin to get away from the goblins and later the spiders and elves.

  21. The problem here is that the DM can always kill the PCs. Roleplaying is a collaborative effort, with a core assumption that the DM is really not trying to kill you. If a typical combat is 80/20 for for PCs, they’re still going to die long before they hit level 3. The core conceit is that most combats are level appropriate. They have to be or you’re just going to keep killing PCs. Or PCs will never engage in normal combat.

    You’re using the following quote to prove your point, but the details you’re missing are actually the most important piece: …the PCs had spotted an army approaching them as they were leading some refugees to safety. Any sane person would have beat a retreat…

    My heroic 12th-level PCs could easily hold off an “army of 40 to 80” typical soldiers while the refugees got away. But my 4th-level PCs would definitely run from the army of 200 soldiers. You’re talking about “sane” people, but most Adventurers do not fit the normal definition of “sane”. Most “sane” people don’t try to sneak into ancient Wizard towers and steal things or venture into dark dungeon filled with dangerous creatures in search of some magic sword.

    The unwritten contract between the DM and PCs is that the DM is generally not trying to kill you. If you regularly violate the CR rules for anything other than important story events, the PCs are going to respond by actively avoiding even the most basic level-gaining encounters.

    If you had decided that the party of 40 revelers was going to be above level and the PCs were able to suss it out (this room is glowing with magic items), then your party is going to go into assassination mode and pick off people as they leave. Or they’re going to “let bad things happen” rather than die and try to sort it out later. Why would a PC ever have a boss showdown if they suspect the DM is actively trying to kill them?

    “Hey this is the BBEG’s room at the bottom of the dungeon, what’s the plan?… oh yeah, we’re just going to bar the door shut and lock him in until he dies of starvation. Capital idea, I’ll go get some more rations!”

    • Heh. My players have never tried the ,”bar the doors and let them starve to death inside plan.” God, I hope they aren’t reading this! (Although, I did try it on them once, but sadly without too much success)

      In all seriousness, you are right. The GM shouldn’t be out to get the PCs and as part of the unwritten social contract hopefully most GMs and players understand that. He should be out to challenge them and if they do insane things they should reap the consequences. That however is lightyears away from the GM setting them up to fail deliberately.

  22. I’ve sent plenty of inappropriate CR challenges at parties, but I always allow them to kind of ascertain that the situation was above their heads. The most recent example was a pirate Orc who vastly out leveled the party and was designed to become a threat further down the line. The campaign is centered around a city, and a simple Knowledge (Local) check revealed who the Orc was and how very much their lives wud be forfeit if they challenged him now. There was a single player at the table, a new player, who desperately wanted to fight him. The other players, both in character and out of game, explained to the character/player how bad that wud be. I think the world shud breath around the players, independent of them. There are adventures all around u. Not all are at ur level. Once u establish that, once u allow them a chance to investigate the challenge, if they decide to fight a fight they can’t win, that’s their issue.

    • I think there’s a decent amount of truth in your comment. Constant re-spawns and being able to buy success in a game with real world money have certainly skewed perceptions of challenge, fun and patience in today’s video gamers.

  23. I agree 100%!

    What you have touched on its (sadly) the main reason I abandoned DCs and measures of “fairness”. For myself it was a continuous decision to become a GM while could tell the pulse of his players. Communication is the key; for it builds trust, and as was so eloquently pointed out, that trust is what determines the level of challenges the party will face.

    … besides, “rules mongering” drops dramatically when eliminating hard numbers use to determine “fairness”.

  24. This reliance on CR is truthfully a thing I ignore. As a DM/GM, I instead tailor my encounters to a story. I create a stlry, and freeball my party through the different arcs of said story. The combat and similar challenges are done when I say they are, as opposed to when hit points and things run out. The party might have a walk in the park, or their resources may be drained to the break point. If my party refuses to get the message, I straight up tell them, “You’re not going to win.” Should they continue regardless, the characters will die and have the opportunity to come back with penalties. Perhaps a key NPC doesn’t come back, animal companions are lost, resources are drained…etc.

    The story always becomes more arduous in the event of the party not getting the hint to run when they should.

    One thing I always do, so that the party doesn’t try to abuse their power: all NPCs have genuine levels. Commoners are not a thing. Instead, courtesy of Pathfinder’s expansive list of classes and archetypes, everyone has a class level and can potentially be a threat.

    Such class levels are almost always appropriate to the occupatuon of said NPC. A locksmith is a rogue more often than not. Priests can be anything from Bards, Clerics, Paladins, Oracles to even Wizards if the deity is appropriate. Blacksmiths are often fighters or similar brawny classes that would demonstrate a knowledge of good steel. Local political figures are often bards, or paladins championing various causes through their implied high charisma. You get the idea… I hope…lol

    As far as monster encounters… They are rare, but when they happen in my campaigns… If it is a beatable foe, it is balanced to the party. If it is not, there is always at least one aspect of the foe that the party has no counter to. I always give hints as to what they can face or deal with. I also always foreshadow what the ramifications of outright failure might be.

    To whit, since I often deal with inexperienced players, I also give every player a single, “do-over.” This can be used once per campaign when a player has done something egregiously stupid or completely screwed the party in some way. Said retcon is only allowable for events that have taken place that session.

    These methods I use have proven to be far more effective, and fun overall, than simply basing challenges on CR for my players. CR only ever really comes into play when using something for a straight faced boss battle. Since it’s application is so rare, my parties tend to rise to the occasion and greatly appreciate it’s use.

  25. Completely agree. Most good stories have a time to run away. The mechanics for getting stronger/more stuff to face a difficult challenge are built into the game. The PCs have to be able to realize when the encounter expects this. I’ve done my best to give very strong hints when I have this aspect in the game, but I still usually have someone who wants to attempt to intimidate the hill giant that’s half a mile away when they are low on resources or someone who thinks its a good idea to charge the wizard on the other side of the battle-filled deck when there is shore in sight and they could as easily jump overboard.

  26. Those two players who decided to face off against the entire force must be devotees of the famous samurai Miyamoto Mushashi: “To win any battle, you must fight as if you are already dead.”
    However, I believe that Musashi meant by that that a warrior should throw himself into a fight with complete dedication, and be unconcerned with preserving one’s life, for winning that fight, or dying in the effort, is all.

  27. CR-appropriate challenges does not trump the story the player characters make/role-playing when I am GM. “He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day” is no less wise or appropriate in some situations than “we must fight to our last breath!” Not every encounter is King Leonidas of Sparta holding the pass at Thermopylae against the entire Persian force. Nor should it be.
    I do warn players if they don’t pick up on the fact that a fight is completely beyond them, drawing from past encounters – “Do you remember when you managed to hold the postern gate at Three Pines Castle, and how close-run that fight was? Even your initial estimate shows that this force outnumbers you far more than that one did, and here you have no evacuation by sea as an option . Moreover, Gronk, who did the lion’s share of the fighting that day, is not with you . .”

    • I do fervently believe that it is not always time to fight, even if you can. After all, as has been said up thread, “Who who runs away, lives to fight another day.” Pick you battles carefully. Win.

  28. As way of introduction, I started playing D&D in 1978 so I am very old school. I am also a combat veteran so I never bought into the whole every encounter is completely balanced to be fair.

    One of the key skills a player should learn, in my opinion, is to determine if a particular encounter is too powerful and if it should be avoided.

    Sometimes getting around such obstacles are much more challenging that attacking everything in sight.

    One had a player character insult a king in front of his court in the king’s own throne room. The king warned him to mind his manners…

    The player said something along the lines of, “Or what? You will have my head cut off? You wouldn’t dare, you jumped up little petty tryant.”

    The king ordered his Royal Guard to throw the knave into the dungeon, while he filled out the death warrant…

    Upshot was the player was certain that I would not go through with the execution. That his character would be pardoned, or be sent into exile, or that he would escape.

    His character was executed. Very bad decisions have to have very bad results. Or you reward extremely bad decision making.

    Rather than kill the two characters out right, have them taken alive as captives. If the player characters will not surrender, then have them beaten unconscious.

    Strip them of their arms, armor and equipment. Have the party goers decide to paint them bright blue and abandon them far away in a tunnel junction or corridor crossroads where the rest of the party will discover them…unconscious, naked and painted blue…with no idea how to get back to the crowd.

    I would image your players will want revenge and their stuff back. Make sure differs party goers have the items. Naturally their lost items will be used against the PCs, and if it is something the mob might not use, they could sell it, trade it to a monster or other NPC in the dungeon.

    Thus you players will learn not to count on every fight being fair, nor foolish actions not having a price.

    Also they will have a personal stake in the quest of recovery. Getting all their gear could take a few sessions, and they will delight in overcoming these particular villains as they have skin in the game.

    But back to the question of making every single encounter fair and balanced. My opinion is you should not.

    You should give your players every opportunity to figure out they are about to face something that they need special weapons, or tactics or reinforcements to handle.

    Like that old Kenny Roger’s Gambler song goes…

    “You have to know when to hold them, you have to know when to fold them, you have to know when to walk away and when to run…”

    Most fights should be more or less balanced, but some should be walkovers, and some should be too tough to handle.

    That makes for excitement, and a fear of the unknown, especially if the encounter they think is going to be a walk over turns out to be an ambush.

    Even 30 kobolds suddenly bum rushing the party from the rear, cutting off their line of retreat can become a very memorable and dangerious fight, especially if the party were already wounded and recovering from another recent fight….

    Similarly, those 6 ogres could all be about to fall over having lost a fight with a group of 15 trolls. The ogres could be on average down to one-quarter hit points.

    If observed to be wounded and not attacted, and if approached by the party, the ogres are not eager for a fight. If the party would be willing to heal and aid them against the trolls, they might ally and help the party wipe out the trolls. Having fought with the party, they may leave after the troll fight on good terms provided the party remain strong otherwise things might end in an fight with the ogres after the trolls are defeated…

    Anyway, hopefully you see and understand why I do not obsess about encounter balance.

    It’s role playing and not a mathematical problem of balance and fairness.

    Let the players know their character decisions and actions have conquences, and they will have the excitement and tension of the unknown in every encounter. When the dice are not kind, always remember there sreak worse things than death…

    Actually if handled correctly, even the setbacks and losses add to the character story. Just my own personal thoughts.

  29. I agree, too! When I was playing, I completely ignored the CR and just went with my gut instinct on what I think players can handle, but as you state, it is creating a mindset in the game that is completely ludicrous!

  30. Agreed, just because it is there doesn’t mean you have need to try to kill it. I keep on killing my players’ characters, they keep on coming back for more… I guess they find it ok as long as they understand I gave them fair warning and that other courses of actions were possible.

  31. When I start DMing a game I give a standard warning: “There are going to be ‘RUN AWAY’, monsters in this campaign. Be smart enough to know what they are.”

  32. I’m actually a huge proponent of showing the players the world they are likely to engage if they make it to high level. Currently I have a group of 6th levels being chased by a 16th level wizard and a 14th level witch competing to gain control over their powers. They survive only because they managed to get magical means of hiding. They’re literally being chased by agents 5 to ten levels higher than them and at any point they could stop hiding and fight….buuuuuuuut they’d be utterly overwhelmed. They don’t always know which encounters are the right level, and they tend to have to tread extremely carefully, often investigating before engaging. So far it’s been a lot of fun and has resulted in some awesome moments.

  33. I definitely agree. Sometimes, my guys do the opposite and think that an enemy is some super hardcore elite monster when it would be an easy encounter for them.

    There has also been a time where they thought an encounter was going to be easy (as have I) and it’s been really tough due to the synergy of enemy creatures! (they quickly learnt to take down a Nilbog first before anything else – I mainly play 5e)

  34. There’s at least a few AP moments I can think of where there are deliberately under CR’d fights to this end – The second book of Mummy’s Mask has the party cutting down hordes of standard zombies, exemplifying their heroism.

    CR is such an imprecise tool in general though, that I feel these waters are rather well muddied at this point.

    • CR not being precise estimate of difficulty came up in our game this weekend. In one encounter we had a dominated giant outside the room when one in the room shouted the alarm. We had the dominated one pretend to be drunk and then take a punch at the one who came to investigate. Mean while we buffed up and thencame out and attacked. The boss came in and got one attack then died – hexed, enervated and then a hasted rapid shot volley from our archer with two crits took hime down.
      We bypassed the next encounter using dimension door.
      Then we set off a tapped which left over half the party near helpless., and caused the guards to attack. Our paladin took over 180 points of damage, surviving only by healing herself. Our witch died but was saved by the cleric using gloves of first aid. Then he was taken down to one point from dying before being saved.
      The CRs of the encounters were probably fairly close, but there was a massive difference in the difficulties