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I am a new DM and am trying to create a mini campaign for an all-night D&D session. The problem I keep running into is how hard should I make the campaign, or what my players will be able to handle. I have heard people say that the CR is related to the level of the party, but I have heard others say that the CR system is not very good.

The players are also very new, we've only had 5 sessions of Lost Mine of Phandelver. Most of the monsters I've added will have a CR equal to what the player's level should be at that point in the campaign, but I am a little confused when it comes to the boss: A gold adult Dragon. At that time, I had planned the party to be around level 12, but according to this, the dragon has a CR of 17. I thought this should be fine, as it is a boss fight, but I want to make sure I don't TPK the party.

How do you think they would go in that fight?

In case this is important: The party consists of a wizard, rogue, cleric, paladin, fighter and ranger

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    \$\begingroup\$ What resources do you have available? Have you looked at the Building Combat Encounters section of the DMG or basic rules? Can you give us more of an idea about what it is that's confusing you? \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Aug 8 '17 at 0:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleMonkey I only have the DMG and Player's handbook as a pdf, so I find them a little harder to read, but I'll take a look at that section. I don't want to have a TPK, as it is meant to be a short, fast-paced campaign, It's more of a large dungeon crawl with rest stops, to be honest. Mainly it's the Challenge Rating system that's confusing, and how I can tell what is a high rating or a low rating for the encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – Paphi Aug 8 '17 at 10:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I may have read your question incorrectly, so I request clarification. Is the party taking the characters, who are 5 sessions into LMoP, and progressing in one night to 12th level, or will they be running just that night as a bunch of 12th level characters? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 8 '17 at 13:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast No, the characters aren't the ones from Lmop. I am planning to still start the new ones at level 1, but super fast track them so they are level 12 at the end, as you said. \$\endgroup\$ – Paphi Aug 8 '17 at 16:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Once you've got 20 rep you'll be able to participate in Role-playing Games Chat, also--if this is fundamentally about the larger CR system, rather than just this one encounter, it may be worth popping your head in when you've got half an hour. There are usually some 5e experts on hand, no matter the time of day. Oh, and: welcome to the site! \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Aug 8 '17 at 16:45
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"By the books" the encounter is barely a Hard one. But there are huge caveats....

The adult gold dragon is CR17, 18,000 XP. According to the DMG at p.82 your L12 PCs can handle 2,999 XP each in a medium encounter, or 3,000 XP puts them into "hard" territory. And just to remind ourselves:

Hard. A hard encounter could go badly for the adventurers. Weaker characters might get taken out of the fight, and there's a slim chance that one or more characters might die. (ibid.)

Caveat 1: preparation/rest.

You haven't mentioned how prepared/rested you expect the PCs to be. In my experience a party of well-rested and -equipped L12 adventurers may have no problem punching out a CR17 creature. (A week ago a L12/13 party of 4 I was playing in had basically no trouble taking out a CR18 boss. And that was with one party member out of the fight--no, out of the plane--for the encounter.)

This also applies to your players: if they're practiced at combat, if they're synergizing well, if they know how to unload when they need to, that's easily a factor of x1.5 or x2 in the hellfire they can unleash on an opponent. If your party's coming in loaded for bear, that's very different than if they're lurching into their final battle wheezing, out of action surges and high-level spell slots, &c.

This, IMO, is a much bigger dial tweaking the encounter's difficulty than is CR.

Caveat 2: GM play.

If you play this dragon as smart, experienced, nimble, and self-preservationist as you can, I think your party stands little chance. You've got legendary resistances, you've got lair actions, you get to set the terrain (the same way the dragon set its lair), and you don't have to play it fighting to the death.

Many GMs, in my experience, play even their smart monsters "stupid," out of a sense of fairness to the players, or out of a desire to avoid TPK. And it's a reasonable concern: if the intelligent enemy focuses on the spellcaster and takes them out of the fight first, it kinda stinks for that player to have to just watch the rest of the table having fun. Much easier just to roll a dParty to decide targets, or to intentionally spread the enemy's attention evenly. And, as we all know, that's the least effective way to make it out of combat alive.

Whether you decide to play this dragon as a creature fighting for its life at all costs or as an expected notch in the belts of your players is an even bigger factor than how prepared the players/characters are.

Again, a much bigger dial tweaking the encounter's difficulty than is CR.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, but you should emphasize preparation even more: not even the party cleric has 50% chance to save against the Frightful Presence on the first try, and the fighter will likely spend the rest of his life (9 rounds) frightened. A simple Calm Emotions spell could take care of this. Potions of Resistance are equally important, without it the the wizard could be taken out by 2 Fire Breaths, even if he succeeds on both saving throws, and not much chance for that. \$\endgroup\$ – András Aug 8 '17 at 7:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Andras I think you're right that I could use stressing preparation more, but I started to get lost in the weeds when I thought about enumerating the ways. The fighter could spend the whole time frightened, but have they used Indomitable yet? Have people conserved Luck/Lucky/Portent dice? Rages? Does the rogue sneak in with a cloak of elvenkind to get off that first, advantaged, surprise, autocrit with 7d6 becoming 14d6, or have they not scouted the area? The list could go on forever.... Still, I do think that when the rubber meets the road, the GM's play holds even more sway. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Aug 8 '17 at 12:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was not clear enough. Indomitable, Lucky and Portent will not help you, if your save value is +0, and the target is DC21. If you know you will face a fire breathing dragon, and you have time and resources to prepare, it is hard to lose. If not, it is hard to win. \$\endgroup\$ – András Aug 8 '17 at 12:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @András aahh... yes. Good points. Will edit at some point today. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Aug 8 '17 at 13:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I cannot emphasize enough how important the 'DM Play' of this answer is. Dragons come with a toolbox of capabilities that can make them spectacularly lethal if a DM is playing them intelligently. A Gold Dragon using strafing tactics and making good use of its swim and flight speeds can annihilate even a well-prepared party. It can blast the party with its breath-weapon, maybe do a few drive-bys with its bite and tail, then chill out beyond most of the party's range until its breath weapon recharges. I have seen very high level parties get TPKd with ease by a 'smart' dragon. \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Aug 8 '17 at 17:06
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They have a decent chance if they don't bunch up, but ...

... an intelligently played dragon has a lot of ways to defeat a party.

.. the characters aren't the ones from LMoP. I am planning to still start the new ones at level 1, but super fast track them so they are level 12 at the end

I'd normally suggest that you take your time and don't rush the campaign. This team needs to gel in order to take on what can be a tough opponent if you as the DM play the Gold Dragon intelligently. Maybe your players will thrive on the 'drink through a fire hose' style of campaign you have in mind.

If the dragon is encountered in the lair, then the lair actions, allies and legendary actions may be too much, or it could be a grand fight that they can win.

The players are also very new, we've only had 5 sessions of LMOP.

I see a nice mix of classes, wizard, rogue, cleric, paladin, fighter and ranger. As the campaign progresses, challenge them so that they have to play as a team. That right there, playing as a team, is what will allow their synergistic effects to take on a tough boss.

About that dragon ... when do they first meet this big boss monster?

You will note that an Adult Gold Dragon has the Change Shape ability. (MM p. 114) What provisions have you made for the party meeting the dragon in "other than dragon form" during the course of play? Also note that the adult gold dragon flies, swims (is amphibious), and can breathe underwater.

Change Shape

The dragon magically polymorphs into a humanoid or beast that has a challenge rating no higher than its own, or back into its true form. It reverts to its true form if it dies. Any equipment it is wearing or carrying is absorbed or borne by the new form (the dragon’s choice). In a new form, the dragon retains its alignment, hit points, Hit Dice, ability to speak, proficiencies, Legendary Resistance, lair actions, and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores, as well as this action. Its statistics and capabilities are otherwise replaced by those of the new form, except any class features or legendary actions of that form.

If this gold dragon is a major presence in the campaign and is played intelligently, the Change Shape ability allows it to get around quite a bit in other forms: human, elf, donkey, elephant, horse, giant eagle, etc. It can interact with PCs and NPCs, as well as gather rumors and news which makes it likely to have heard about this party well ahead of time. This gold dragon could even hire the party for a mission (while in human form), appearing as a "quest giving NPC" who needs something done during an earlier time in this campaign.

Just a note about intelligence gathering and spying: the best intel and recon is collected when those being spied upon aren't aware of the eyes on them. Conversely, when people know that they are being watched, they are more careful about what they give away. Apply that understanding to the dragon (sizing up possible opponents) and find ways to teach your players to do that same thing.

If this dragon encounter is to be a big battle, don't shortchange your players. Make it play smart: Int=16, Wis=15; this dragon is no dummy.

  1. Make sure that the party is challenged so that they have to act as a team in the encounters leading up to the dragon.
  2. Play the dragon smart, tough, and as a survivor. It didn't get to be an adult gold dragon by being stupid. All of that stuff in its hoard came from somewhere, and someone, right? That dragon beat tough, smart opponents (and a few fools) along the way.

About "...if they don't bunch up."

Try to make sure they fight at least one dragon, or one enemy with a breath weapon, before this encounter so that they understand the lethality of a breath weapon on a group that is bunched up. Sometimes, learning by doing is the best way. @András makes a good point about preparation for a fight against a dragon:

... not even the party cleric has a 50% chance to save against the Frightful Presence on the first try, and the fighter will likely spend the rest of his life (9 rounds) frightened. A simple Calm Emotions spell could take care of this. Potions of Resistance are equally important; without one the wizard could be taken out by two Fire Breaths (even if he succeeds on both saving throws, and not much chance for that).

Some key features make an Adult dragon tough ...

Legendary Resistance

(3/Day). If the dragon fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead.

Frightful Presence

DC 21 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for 1 minute. A creature can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success. If a creature’s saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the creature is immune to the dragon’s Frightful Presence for the next 24 hours.

Who has proficiency in Wisdom Saving Throws?

Breath Weapons

DC 21 Dexterity save or take 66 (12d10) fire damage (half on a successful save)

Who has proficiency in Dexterity Saves?

The Wing Attack (Legendary Action)

(2 Actions). Each creature within 10 feet of the dragon must succeed on a DC 22 Dexterity saving throw or take 15 (2d6 + 8) bludgeoning damage and be knocked prone. The dragon can then fly up to half its flying speed.

Who has proficiency in Dexterity saving throws? Some of the party may spend the entire fight getting up off the ground

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Op said it was a one shot for an all night d&d session. If the dragon is going to show up in the session, the players really won't have time to gel at all... \$\endgroup\$ – Shem Aug 8 '17 at 12:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Shem I got the clarification, good call, thanks for the help. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 8 '17 at 17:14

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