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What does a "3rd level party" mean in a published adventure?

this adventure assumes the characters begin this chapter at level 3. some of the haunted keeps are tougher than others. featherdale spire is designed for a 3rd level party (Princes of the Apocalypse)

Does it just mean all player characters are level 3, because Princes of the Apocalypse would be scaled up incredibly high if that is the case?

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It refers to the average level of the characters in the party. Example: four 3rd level characters are a "3rd level party". That having been said, 5e generally makes all claims about encounter difficulty assuming that the party consists of 3-5 PCs. If there are more or less than this, the difficulty of the challenges they can overcome needs to be adjusted accordingly. See the DMG, p. 83 (and surrounding pages) for more information.

I'm unclear what you mean by "Princes of the Apocalypse would be scaled up incredibly high", so I cannot address that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The full text is now available, if you want to update your answer a bit. (And I think you can make it clearer in that regard) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 16 '18 at 18:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ravery - Where specifically can I find that definition? I didn't find the formula you're referring to in the DMG encounter building section nor in the beginning of the MM... what did I miss? To clarify, I see the definition including 4 PCS, but not the (sum of levels)/4 bit... \$\endgroup\$ – Harris M Snyder Jun 16 '18 at 19:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that's a logical way of looking at it, I was just curious if "party level" was a well-defined term with an explicit formula in 5e. In the absence of such a definition, I don't think we can be sure that WotC had that specific formula in mind when writing the book that the OP is referring to, so I'm going to leave my answer as is. \$\endgroup\$ – Harris M Snyder Jun 16 '18 at 20:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ravery you should give that as an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – MrHiTech Jun 17 '18 at 3:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MrHiTech -- I posted an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – ravery Jun 17 '18 at 5:03
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"Party Level" is the average level of the characters in a party. While most modules and campaigns say they are designed for parties of 3-5 characters, the DMG specifically states that monster Challenge Ratings (CR) is based on a party of four.

A single monster with a challenge rating equal to the adventurers' level is, by itself, a fair challenge for a group of four characters.(DMG p.274)

Thus, a 3rd level party, is a group of four 3rd level characters or some combination that averages to 3rd level. If your party has more or less characters than four, you can figure the party level by averaging as if there were four; ie divide the total levels by 4 instead of the actual number of characters.

For example: A party of six 3rd level characters, would have a total character level of 18; divided by 4 gives a party level of 4.5

This encounter calculator is built for 3.5e but it has a party level calculator.

For Princes of the Apocalypse, yes it assumes you have a party of four 3rd level characters. If you have 6 characters in your party then they would all be 2nd level to form a 3rd level party. However, six second level players might have difficulty in the harder encounters due to lower abilities. This module appears to be the third in a larger campaign. If you are running fresh characters, then just hand wave exp, and level them up to 3rd. Or, run them through a couple other modules first.

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