I am going to start today’s bog off with a statement that will surprise many and might even anger a few. Challenge Rating’s are bad plain and simple. There I said it. But why ? What is it about the challenge rating system that makes it a bad system?
Well to fully understand why the CR system is bad you have to take a few key points that have been ingrained into gamer’s all the way back to third edition D&D. These systems were designed with the intent to help guide the GM to balanced encounters. To assist the GM in determining the amount of combats a party should be able to handle over the course of a day of adventuring. But Somewhere the intent of the encounters got lost. In 3rd Edition we were told four encounters per day of equal CR to the Party level should be a good days worth of combat. This then followed suit into 3.5 and Pathfinder moved to a model of 2-4.. then as PFS comes along we move into 4-6 encounters a day should be your average session. This becomes the norm moving into 4E and 5E. As we look deeper we see that THIS is not nor ever was the intent. Instead this is what was INTERPRETED. So where did everything go wrong ?
As I began to delve into where this started and how it has become such a deep seeded issue with most GM’s I had begun take a very close look at some books in an effort to refresh my memories. As I began to gain a better understanding of the issue I found a few entries in my old books. A few key points that may have put so many people on the “Balanced XP/Encounter” path became apparent.
The first thing that jumps out at me when I started looking into the DMG is this. Found in the 3.5 DMG
So, what counts as a “challenge”? Since a game session probably
includes many encounters, you don’t want to make every
encounter one that taxes the PCs to their limits. They would have
to stop the adventure and rest for an extensive period after every
fight, and that slows down the game. An encounter with an
Encounter Level (EL) equal to the PCs’ level is one that should
expend about 20% of their resources—hit points, spells, magic
item uses, and so on. This means, on average, that after about four
So there you have it. The commonly accepted and understood break down of Challenge Ratting. But wait.. if you move on the to top of the page and the next paragraph there is more.
The party should be able to take on many more encounters
lower than their level but fewer encounters with ELs higher than
their level. As a general rule, if the EL is two lower than the party’s
level, the PCs should be able to take on twice as many encounters
before having to stop and rest. Two levels lower than that, and the
number of encounters they can cope with doubles again, and so
So this is where I find myself confused. Why if in the very next paragraph were told that party’s are quite capable of handling several encounters of far lower EL then the party. But even after writing down. The company then very much forever moved away from this format themselves. Instead the industry and almost all GM’s embraced the 4 encounter mindset.
This attitude is even then part of the foundation of 4th edition where it is pushed on the players that with the new advent of minion monsters and the new class systems that your players can feel heroic again! Now able to fight off hordes of Orc and goblins. But when you look at it a party of four 8th level PC’s could take on a tribe of 30 orcs with ease by the old 3.5 Encounter Calculators. Was this step needed ?
That same group could find closer to 50 goblins and carry the day handily.
And yet the flip side of this is that same 8th level party could encounter a CR 15 encounter. They would only have a %5 chance of victory. The battle would come at a Terrible cost and most likely the death of one or more of the party. Most GM’s would never set this encounter out before their players these days. And the reasons I think this is because of the definitions of Very Difficult and overpowering encounters.
Very Difficult: One PC might very well die. The Encounter Level
is higher than the party level. This sort of encounter may be more
dangerous than an overpowering one, because it’s not immediately
obvious to the players that the PCs should flee.
Overpowering: The PCs should run. If they don’t, they will
almost certainly lose. The Encounter Level is five or more levels
higher than the party level.
I think this mindset has also pushed many players into an unexpected style of play as well. Encounter Counting is now a thing. The act of keeping an eye on how many resources they have left so they know when to stop and rest we wont die. So when A GM throws his players into deadly situations that are not balanced or they miss the approach of the encounter that would make it balanced they feel treated unfairly.
This is not to say that I am encouraging Monty Hall GM’s or Murder Masters. I am saying that if you don’t provide encounters with a challenge your players will forget there is a challenge. And if there is no challenge this makes the great things the players do feel less great. Because they will come to know they will win no mater the challenges ahead.
Encounters are as much about balance as they are telling your story. No one cares about the Bear you fought on the side of the road. They care about that stopping Arch Magi attempting to flood the whole valley and saving hundreds of live ! But when you cheapen it with too much encounter balance. It becomes tedious. Do not put the idea of an encounter in a neat little box. So I will wrap this up where I started Challenge Ratings are bad.