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I am planning to make a variation of the official Necromancer NPC statblock from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and I wanted to make sure the challenge rating was correct based on the original. However, since it’s a spellcaster, the CR calculation gets a little weird.

I tried my best to calculate the CR of the official Necromancer based on the health, AC, and maximum damage output from spells, but the CR never seems to reach 9, which is the correct number.

Here’s the stat block for the original Necromancer:

Necromancer

Medium humanoid, any alignment

Armor Class: 12 (15 with mage armor)
Hit Points: 66 (12d8 + 12)
Speed: 30 ft.

STR 9 (-1)
DEX 14 (+2)
CON 12 (+1)
INT 17 (+3)
WIS 12 (+1)
CHA 11 (0)

Saving Throws: Int +7, Wis +5
Skills: Arcana +7, History +7
Damage Resistances: Necrotic
Languages: Any four
Challenge: 9 (5,000 XP)

Traits

Spellcasting. The necromancer is a 12th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Intelligence (spell save DC 15, +7 to hit with spell attacks). The necromancer has the following wizard spells prepared:

Cantrips (at will): chill touch, dancing lights, mage hand, mending

1st level (4 slots): false life,* mage armor, ray of sickness*

2nd level (3 slots): blindness/deafness,* ray of enfeeblement,* web

3rd level (3 slots): animate dead,* bestow curse,* vampiric touch*

4th level (3 slots): blight,* dimension door, stoneskin

5th level (2 slots): Bigby’s hand, cloudkill

6th level (1 slot): circle of death*

*Necromancy spell of 1st level or higher

Grim Harvest (1/Turn). When necromancer kills a creature that is neither a construct nor undead with a spell of 1st level or higher, the necromancer regains hit points equal to twice the spell’s level, or three times if it is a necromancy spell.

Actions

Withering Touch. Melee Spell Attack: +7 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 5 (2d4) necrotic damage.


Here’s how I calculated the CR:

Defensive CR

Hit Points: 66; Defensive Rating: 1/2

AC: 15; Moves Defensive Rating up to 1.

(I ignore Grim Harvest, since that could, at the very best, only heal 18 hit points.)

Offensive CR

Average Damage Output:

cloudkill: 22.5 x 2 = 45 poison damage. (Rounds 1, 2, & 3)

circle of death: 28 x 2 = 56 necrotic damage. (Round 2)

blight: 36 necrotic damage. (Round 3)

(3(45) + 56 + 36)/3 = roughly 76 damage per round; Offensive rating: 12

Save DC: 15; Lowers Offensive Rating to 11.

Overall CR

Challenge Rating: 11 (offensive) + 1 (defensive) = 12; 12/2 = 6

I think I did the math right, but I might be ignoring the usefulness of some spell or something.


Can anyone explain why this NPC has a CR of 9 and how to calculate it? Is my calculation missing something or incorrect in some way?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "I tried my best to calculate the CR of the official Necromancer" - Could you show the math you used for your calculations? \$\endgroup\$ – MikeQ Feb 28 '19 at 0:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Afaik, whether the answer is the same is irrelevant. The questions are different so they are not duplicates. "How is the official Necromancer’s CR calculated?" is problematic because it's unlikely that WotC published their calculations anywhere. We could answer "Did I calculate the Necromancer's CRs correctly?". \$\endgroup\$ – Ruse Feb 28 '19 at 19:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch This is not a dupe due to the spellcasting feature. This adds a significant complication to the answer. I'm in the middle of writing up an answer on this \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Feb 28 '19 at 19:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's asking how WoTC did something which is akin to Designer Reasons. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 28 '19 at 19:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch the only part of the question that needs editing is this sentence: "Can anyone explain why this NPC has a CR of 9 and how to calculate it?" and changing it to something like this "Is my calculation missing something or incorrect in some way?" would make this question entirely on topic. \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Mar 1 '19 at 14:26
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The spellcasting trait is important (DMG Creating a Monster Stat Block):

Spells that deal more damage than the monster’s normal attack routine and spells that increase the monster’s AC or hit points need to be accounted for when determining the monster’s final challenge rating.

(Monster Manual > Introduction > Special Traits)

You can change the spells that a monster knows or has prepared, replacing any spell on a monster’s spell list with a different spell of the same level and from the same class list. If you do so, you might cause the monster to be a greater or lesser threat than suggested by its challenge rating.

The same goes for it's Grim Harvest feature (DMG Creating a Monster Stat Block):

Some special traits (such as Magic Resistance), special actions (such as Superior Invisibility), and special reactions (such as Parry) can improve a monster’s combat effectiveness and potentially increase its challenge rating.

Offensive CR

Your offensive CR calculation is incorrect.

  • Spellcasting is a more complicated feature than your calculations give it credit for. You need to calculate the spells damage for each slot to figure out which is the most damaging for that level (over 3 rounds) and then apply that damage.
  • Additionally you are incorrectly making a downwards adjustment for the Save DC variance.

(DMG Creating a Monster Stat Block)

If a monster’s damage output varies from round to round, calculate its damage output each round for the first three rounds of combat, and take the average.

(DMG Creating a Monster Stat Block)

Don’t worry if the save DCs aren’t matching up with the expected challenge rating for the monster. Other factors can affect a monster’s challenge rating, as shown in later steps, and you can always adjust the save DCs later on.

The results are:

  • 6th Level
    • Cloudkill: 10d8 * 3 rounds * 2 creatures = 162
  • 5th level
    • Blight (over two rounds): 9d8 * 2 rounds = 40.5 * 2 rounds = 81

So over 3 rounds the Necromancer can output an impressive 243 points of damage. This is an average of 81 points of damage per round.

This puts it's Offensive CR due to DPR at 13. The suggested attack bonus for a CR 13 creature is +8, the necromancer has +7.

Rules from DMG for adjusting Offensive CR (DMG Creating a Monster Stat Block)

Now look at the attack bonus suggested for a monster of that challenge rating. If your monster’s attack bonus is at least two points higher or lower than that number, adjust the challenge rating suggested by its damage output up or down by 1 for every 2 points of difference.

This is less than 1 point of difference so we don't adjust the CR for that.

Thus it's final Offensive CR calculation is 13.

Defensive CR

Your calculation is missing the spellcasting adjustment. The Grim Harvest feature is also an important one you are missing. It will have a material impact on the Defensive CR as it effectively raises the Necromancer's hit points.

This is particularly critical when you take into account that the Necromancer is very close to the upper threshold of the CR 1 creature.

Lets take it into account.

Maximising life gain using Offensive Spells

Using the offensive CR calculation, if the monster wants to maximise it's damage it will cast the Blight spell twice. This outputs an impressive 81 points of damage on average, which will kill many monsters at CR 1, it would most definitely kill many PCs in tier 1. Since this is a necromancy spell it is likely that this combined damage would kill at least one creature, gaining the necromancer 3 * 4 = 12 hit points.

If instead we assume the necromancer wants to maximise their chance of killing something then they should choose their circle of death 6th level spell, which outputs 28 points of damage. This is certainly enough to kill something like a rat or a fly (which is likely given it's 60ft radius!). This would gain the necromancer 3 * 6 which is 18 hit points.

Adding these two together the max hit points the Necromancer would regain is 30 over the first 3 rounds of combat. This averages out to be 10 points of healing on average.

Maximising Life gain using False Life

If instead the Necromancer wants to maximise their hit points gain they would cast the false life spell at 6th level in the first round. This would add 1d4 + 4 + 5*4 = 26.5 temporary hit points

Either of these two combinations bumps the Necromancer up to a defensive CR of 2.

Calculated CR

The average of it's Offensive CR and Defensive CR is (2 + 13)/2 = 7.5. This rounds up to 8. Almost but not quite there.

Adjusting for the fact that Necromancers come with Friends! (as Necrotic resistance)

The Necromancer has the ability to make additional friends (zombies and skeletons). These creatures add effective hit points and DPR to the Necromancer. Using their 6th level slot it's possible for the Necromancer to raise 5 skeletons or 5 zombies. This will have a material impact on the CR of the creature.

The fact the Necromancer has Necrotic resistance will also increase it's CR in some situations, but it's not straightforward to figure out the effect of this on the CR as it's a more uncommon damage type...but one that a PC could plausibly use a lot depending on their specialisation.

The Animate dead spell on it's own is likely enough to bump the Necromancer from a CR 8 encounter to a CR 9 encounter.

The statement "these creatures add effective hit points and DPR to the Necromancer" isn't obvious. How do you justify this?

The justification is that the Necromancer can bring additional threats to the encounter (or is easily justified to start with those extra threats) that add HP and damage output to the encounter. An encounter with a Necromancer will usually be an encounter with the Necromancer and multiple other threats. Thus if you think about the Necromancer as a self contained encounter, you can think about the Zombie/Skeleton HP & DPR as being the Necromancers HP and DPR. It's not quite correct, but it's a good enough approximation for this process.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you add a citation or justification for: "The Necromancer has the ability to make additional friends (zombies and skeletons). These creatures add effective hit points and DPR to the Necromancer." It's not obvious to me that that's true, and it's the only ambiguity I can find in your otherwise excellent analysis. \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Mar 2 '19 at 12:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Bloodcinder The justification is that the Necromancer can bring additional threats to the encounter (or is easily justified to start with those extra threats) that add HP and damage output to the encounter. An encounter with a Necromancer will usually be an encounter with the Necromancer and multiple other threats. Thus if you think about the Necromancer as a self contained encounter, you can think about the Zombie/Skeleton HP & DPR as being the Necromancers HP and DPR. It's not quite correct, but it's a good enough approximation for this process. \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Mar 7 '19 at 12:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you justify thinking of the necromancer as a self-contained encounter? There's been some contention about that in various questions regarding the XP value of summoned creatures, for example. Your edit does help rationalize your statement, though. I don't think anybody will have any serious problems with this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Mar 7 '19 at 13:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Bloodcinder when evaluating the CR of a monster you need to think about how to evaluate it as its own encounter (which may include things it's summoned). You do this to work out the XP associated with the monster. Think of summoned creatures like applying an XP multiplier to the monster (ala the Encounter XP multiplier table). Should you award XP for summoned monsters separately? That's an entirely different question...but I would say yes, as they drain the resources of the party. It's sort of like the difference between awarded XP and encounter XP. \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Mar 7 '19 at 14:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I totally understand what you're saying. I mean, I already understood what you're saying. What I'm saying is that "when evaluating the CR of a monster you need to think about how to evaluate it as its own encounter" is not, as far as I'm aware, part of the DMG guidelines. Rather, I've always understood the DMG's encounter building guidelines to assume monsters will be a part of a group unless they are legendary. So I truly understand what you're saying, but I'm suggesting that you haven't justified that claim (not saying it's wrong, just conjecture instead of objective). \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Mar 7 '19 at 14:44

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