I am looking at CR's and stats for an upcoming boss fight for my level 2 players. The party consists of a bard using the harbinger variant acting as a debuffer, a cleric who primarily functions as a healer with some benefits from the war domain, a paladin who essentially absorbs damage but does not deal much out, a ranger who is the primary damage dealer and also semi-tank, and a druid who acts as a secondary spellcaster and does a bit of the damage output. All but the bard are very vanilla, new players who used only the core player handbook feats and none of them have min/maxed or optimized.

The idea is to put them up against a black dragon in its lair with various cover available via stalagmites. In addition the party has one scroll of protection from energy (but no-one able to cast it without a use magic check) and one potion of resist energy. The cleric has a tower shield (which he could use for total cover against a breath attack) but is not proficient with it. The idea for the boss fight would be very climactic, evil monologue followed by a long drawn out fight. I would likely include a gong or other warning bell that summoned minions to the fray (low CR kobold bards and clerics who would buff and heal the dragon if it appeared the battle would be over too quickly. The idea here is to make a VERY difficult encounter in which one member of the party could likely die.

I know that at that level anything from a CR 3-6 is very difficult and 7+ is overpowering.

As a rule of thumb should a boss fight be in the low end of overpowering range?

I realize CR and EL are not entirely accurate all the time and a lot of factors play into the actual difficulty of an encounter but I am looking for a general rule of thumb.

My assumption is it should be on the low end of overpowering accounting for 5% of the overall campaign encounters. Or potentially the high end of very difficult.


closed as primarily opinion-based by KRyan, Oblivious Sage, Thomas Jacobs, Miniman, Michaellogg Jun 2 '17 at 16:06

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don’t think we can answer this question. 1, it’s unclear just how difficult a “boss fight” should be, and people may come to this from very different places (and different from where you want to be). 2, and probably more importantly, we know nothing about the party and 3.5 just isn’t balanced enough for us to know what’s appropriate for “level 2 players” since characters’ power at 2nd level can vary wildly (as in, with enough effort, I could almost-certainly build a 2nd-level character that could trivially defeat any CR 7 encounter you wanted to throw at it, but most couldn’t do that). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 2 '17 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I recommend giving us a lot more detail about this party in particular (some idea of their build/how they go about things), and then more detail on what sort of boss fight you’re looking for (both the story and the expectations for difficulty); that we could answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 2 '17 at 14:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see how this question has some degree of opinion, but this is exactly the thing that CR was designed to answer? I imagine that the people who run Pathfinder Society and the Adventurer's League have collected reams of data about what CR is likely to TPK a level X party. I know that this is a 3.5 question, but surely there must be data out there to answer this question. Surely we have a ton of DMs on this site who have personal experience TPKing parties with unfair encounters. Just because you can answer with your opinion doesn't mean that is the only answer. \$\endgroup\$ – BobTheAverage Jun 2 '17 at 17:38

As per the rules, some ~15% of encounters are supposed to be in the CR 3-6(technically EL, for encounter level) range for APL 2 parties, and a mere 5% above that.

By these same rules, a CR 7 encounter is an encounter that the PCs are NOT EXPECTED TO WIN.

Additionally, the CR/EL of the encounter is determined by the whole group of monsters, not just the strongest. With the support you list, 2+ Kobold Clerics of CR 2-ish, and 2+ Kobold Bards of CR 2-ish, the support alone is an EL of 6-ish. Adding in even the youngest of Black Dragons at CR 3, that likely pushes the fight into EL 7ish territory.

So, the first question is this: Do you expect your PCs to win? As in, do you expect them to have a shot, at all, of winning this fight? If so, EL 7 is not appropriate per the rules, especially given that Dragons are under-CR'ed for their power.

In this situation, I think that a CR 3 black dragon, with a large smattering of unaltered Kobolds would be sufficient for an encounter. Or alternatively, a CR 3-5 dragon alone, if you want the players to face him as a more notably solo encounter.


In D&D 3.5e, dragons are a sort of penultimate boss type, the creatures that make characters wet themselves. It's assumed that a party who's wanting to fight one will be equipped for the battle with anti-dragon equipment and/or class features. Dragons are generally tougher than their CR would indicate.

If your party isn't specifically equipped to handle one, keep this in mind. A dragon of a CR equal to their level will (probably) be significantly harder than other creatures, especially if it has its own dedicated healers. For a 2nd-level party, a dragon any higher than about CR 4 will carry a substantial risk of character death.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that Black Dragons only have CR 3, 4, 5 and 7 in the relevant range. It can't have the CR 2 you use as an example. \$\endgroup\$ – godskook Jun 2 '17 at 17:21

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