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I'm about to lead a raid into an orc camp for a party of two characters. Both are level 4, one is a bard and the other is a barbarian/warlock multiclass.

I found a CR12 homebrew monster, the Orc Druid Gatekeeper (shared by /u/FreeWolf on the /r/UnearthedArcana subreddit); it looks fun but I don't want it to kill them. I can't find anything that says firmly what it should be. I'm a new DM and don't want this to overwhelm them.

Is this CR12 monster likely to be too difficult for my players?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you please link the homebrewed monster? There is a way to calculate CR in the Dungeon Master's Guide but it's impossible to know if it was done correctly for this monster. It's possible (but unlikely) they drastically over calculated the CR. Also, welcome to the site! \$\endgroup\$ – Captain Man Oct 17 at 14:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes!! Sorry for not responding before now. I have had a busy week!! Its something I found on pinterest. I am going to save it for something later in the game. \$\endgroup\$ – GrumpyKitten Oct 22 at 6:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ pin.it/hpeza4f6let4yn \$\endgroup\$ – GrumpyKitten Oct 22 at 6:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've edited a link to the PDF (and original reddit post) the monster is from into your post. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 22 at 7:58
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Absent Extenuating Circumstances, Yes

According to Kobold Fight Club, which gets its information from the DMG, a party of two level 4 characters would consider 250xp worth of monsters Easy, 500xp Medium, 750xp Hard, and 1000xp Deadly. Furthermore, they should not encounter more than 3400xp worth of monsters in a single day (between Long Rests).

A CR 12 monster is worth 8,500 xp, over eight times the level of a Deadly encounter. A CR 12 monster would almost certainly kill your players within a round or two, unless they were exceptionally clever or lucky, in which case they might be able to flee.

Note that this assumes a) that the homebrew is indeed CR 12 (many homebrews' CRs are inaccurate, since it is difficult to calculate without extensive playtesting) and b) that the fight is more or less fair. Many circumstances, such as environment or the presence of allies on either side, could influence the difficulty of a fight. However, if circumstances influenced a fight so heavily that your party was able to defeat a CR 12 monster, the players' contributions would probably feel negligible.

Kobold Fight Club (linked above) is an excellent tool for planning and balancing 5e encounters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It does have it's limits though. It will tell you that a pair of mummy lords would be a deadly encounter for a 4 character party who are level 17. But at that level a sorcerer/wizard will have meteor storm which can annihilate a small army of mummy lords. For that matter, a level 17 wizard is a long more formidable than someone has multiclassed for a few levels because of level 9 spells. \$\endgroup\$ – Allan Mills Oct 17 at 4:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AllanMills CR math gets a little wishy-washy at those levels. Player skill, party composition and level of optimisation all play a role that is difficult to calculate. If a deadly encounter gets my player to use a 9th level spell I'd say it was worth it. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Oct 17 at 5:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AllanMills Player abilities is why I approach balancing with a three step plan: 1 - CR Calculation. 2 - DPR and Action Economy. 3 - Playtesting. \$\endgroup\$ – SamsyTheUnicorn Oct 17 at 11:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that 5e gives players power spikes at the 5th, 11th, and 17th levels. That's when extra attacks kick in, major abilities turn on, and cantrips go up in damage. A CR 6 or even 7 creature is not an insurmountable challenge for a level 5 party, so long as they have not yet expended critical resources. However, a CR 5 monster will put a serious hurting on a level 4 party. A CR12 creature is intended for a party not one, but two power spikes above a level 4 party. \$\endgroup\$ – Renegade Oct 17 at 14:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ It may be worth noting (unless you disagree with it), that CR is very (very very) roughly the average level of four adventurer's that would fight that creature. CR 5 = 4 level 5 characters. \$\endgroup\$ – goodguy5 Oct 17 at 15:26
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Try it yourself

If you have a copy of their character sheets, run the encounter by yourself a few times playing both sides. You should get a decent idea about how outmatched the PCs might be.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is good advice. It's how I tweak encounter building. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 17 at 2:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Playtesting can't be emphasized enough. It cuts through all the abstractions involved in CR calculations, and knowing what parts of a fight might cause particular difficulty or ease for your players makes on-the-fly adjustments to keep the difficulty and pressure where you want it to be. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Oct 17 at 15:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can even play test it by arbitrarily removing decisions like which spells the wizard learned. If you use up the spell slots like a sorcerer, with no limits on the spells, can you even win? Fudge all the dice rolls if necessary. If they need a very specific set of spells and have streaks of natural 20s to win, you have a problem with the encounter. If they die regardless of what you do, then that's also a problem. \$\endgroup\$ – Nelson Oct 17 at 16:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Careful that running the encounter yourself might lead to overfitting encounters for the particular strengths and weakness of the characters, which leads to (1) not rewarding them for their strengths and (2) not punishing them for their weaknesses. I remember reading AngryDM's serie of articles on how to build encounters, where he advised to run the encounter with a platonic party. Use this party (same number of characters, same level) with a good mix of skills/abilities, to do the play-test/tweak cycle. And then only do a final rehearsal with the real party (but no tweaking). \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Oct 18 at 9:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I didnt think of that. Thank you for suggesting it. I need to test a monster I made for them to encounter and this is the perfect solution. \$\endgroup\$ – GrumpyKitten Oct 22 at 6:31
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Most likely, Yes

A creatures' CR is roughly the character level for a 4-person group to have a decent challenge.

A group of 2 level 4 players would be around CR 3 themselves... You are putting your players against something that can hold its own against 4 level 12's, and is deadly to 4 level 10's.

Now, you can of course make up reasone why this creature is weaker than usual, or you can give your players an obvious advantage

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would hesitate to call 2 level 4 players "around CR 3" as players and monsters are totally different. You may have meant "can handle a CR 3 monster" though. \$\endgroup\$ – Captain Man Oct 17 at 14:41
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Looking at it from a "CR budget" stand point is fine and dandy, but as we are all aware CR isn't always the most accurate depiction of difficulty (though admittedly this is much less pronounced at low levels).

Look at it this way.

First, go to Kobold Fight Club and isolate CR12 monsters.

Then remove everything with a legendary action and legendary resistances, because the outcome of those fights will be clear. Barring some extraordinary circumstances, the monster with legendary actions will stomp the L4s. For example, a pair of L4s aren't about to reasonably fight an Int 19 Ki-Rin that can throw out a Holy Word and then take 2 legendary actions to either move 60ft, or throw out free 4d8 damage sacred flames.

A level 4 Barbarian with 16 Constitution and fixed stats has 45 HP. That's probably going to be about as good as it gets for HP at level 4. A chain lightning or an up-cast Cone of Cold will probably do that much damage. Fireball damage is comparable. Not to mention that, if the monster is a high-level caster, it's probably smart enough not to reasonably let a bunch of L4s get the upper hand on it. So, you can also remove all of the casters with access to level 5+ AoEs.

You are not left with many options. I suggest that the easiest of these is something like the Gray Render or a Frost Giant Everlasting One, either of which is likely to drop a PC each round. I would say that the Gray Render is likely the easier of the two, so let's go with that.

The Gray Render has 19 AC. It gets 3 attacks, 2 of which prone at DC16, doing something like 54 damage/round. However, it's a large dumb brute with a 30' move speed and can probably be CC'd relatively easily via an intelligence or Wisdom save (i.e. - Phantasmal Force) and worn down over time at range. It's conceivable that something like a duo of casters could beat it under the right circumstances. Similarly, a duo of optimized ranged characters (say, L4 Variant Human Rangers with Sharpshooter and crossbow expert, or PCs with a fly speed) could also kite it and whittle it down if they fought it in an open field.

Apart from this, the PCs' advantage would have to be extreme (i.e. - 2 barbarians inside an cage inside an anti-magic field vs an Archmage), in which case the monster probably wouldn't be fairly CR'd at 12.

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I think the other answers saying,

cover the reasons not to use the CR12 creature.

Also consider, look at a single attack from it. Would that be enough to kill one of your player characters? Are you ok with that? If not, that's enough warning all by itself. One too-strong monster can upset everything by unexpectedly killing a character even if it's theoretically not too strong (e.g. a CR12 creature against twenty level 4 characters).

What can you do? Well, since it's a homebrew monster, no-one knows how strong it's supposed to be. Can you massively drop its attacks and HP until it's roughly equivalent to an existing CR3 monster? (Either "that's just what it's like in this world," or "it's a cub.") Or, if you don't have that much experience gauging what's reasonable, take the stats of an existing CR3 monster and replace one or two of its abilities with an interesting ability from this new monster to create a simplified version of it.

In particular, think through a few version of the first few rounds of combat, what's likely to happen, which give the experience you're hoping for, and focus on those, rather than the stat block as a whole.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review \$\endgroup\$ – GreySage Oct 17 at 21:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GreySage I disagree, this answer proposes a few basic ways for the querent to quickly resolve the problem themselves. The answer cites other answers' general solutions and appends to them additional information that are generally easy for a new DM to implement. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Oct 17 at 21:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that answers can be shown in different orders, so "above" is confusing \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 18 at 1:31
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There is no "too high" The DMG pg 81-85 is devoted to encounter building. From a practical standpoint this is a killer encounter that the PCs will not walk away from unless they can outsmart the baddie or flee. In general according to the DMG a Party of 2 level 4 players would have a CR of 2. This can be changed based on your players skill and capabilities. Another option is you can change the stats of the CR12 creature to better fit the party level as noted on DMG pg 273-283.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Based on Syric's answer, I think stating that there is no "too high" might be an exaggeration... for 5e, over 1000 xp (or certainly over 3400 xp) at their level is patently too high, by design. I understand what you're trying to say but, especially when informing those new to the hobby, you may want to lead with more explanation than assuming they're able to hand-wave it because its cool. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Oct 17 at 5:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso My answer is based off of practical experience. Yes it would be too high if the encounter is expected to be won by killing the monster. However, there are others ways of beating the encounter than just killing it as I stated in my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Eternallord66 Oct 17 at 13:18
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Absolutely too difficult

Mathematically, there are two dimensions to encounter building - monster Challenge Rating and encounter XP budget. CR tells you whether a monster is a fair challenge, XP tells you whether an encounter is a fair challenge.

Challenge Rating is defined as the lowest level at which the monster is a fair challenge. Since this monster's CR (12) is [much] greater than the characters' levels (4), it is absolutely not a fair challenge.

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Lots of good answers, I'm going to go in a different direction and say:

No, it's not too hard for two players.

Provided, you can think quickly, roll behind a screen and are OK with blatantly lying to your players.

Here's how you can do it.

  • The monster "happened" to roll initiative to go after the barbarian. That way the turn order will be "bard - barbarian - monster" and the bard's healing will be most useful to bring the barbarian back up right before his turn.
  • If it can cast spells, it "forgets" about the most powerful ones. Or is "saving" them for later.
  • It misses when its attack would bring down the bard.
  • It rolled big damage once or twice at the start of combat, but it rolls low damage when characters are near death. Or when it was going to bring down the barbarian anyway.
  • It only brings a character to zero if the other character has healing spells.
  • It happens to die (or run away because it was low on HP) right as the characters run out of resources, or on the third or fourth round. Regardless of its actual hit points.
  • If your players ask, you don't really know its CR. It was a homebrew. The website said 12, but it must have been wrong.

You're the GM, you have all the knowledge and all the power. You can make this fight go exactly the way you want. It can crit the barbarian in the first round and bring him to zero in one hit. Your players will be scared to death, but subsequent, non-critical hits can be more reasonable. The monster can be a pansy who flees as soon as it sees your players are standing to fight. You can kill a character on purpose if you want. Resurrection quests can be fun. Turn the battle into a dramatic story, and let your players think it's a battle of tactics and dice.

Not everyone likes this type of play. Some people think fudging dice rolls ruins the game. Some players say, "If you're not going to follow the rules, then why do even have rules?" You have to know your players and know what will work for them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure why this got down voted. Lot's of GMs play this way and it works. If you aren't one of those then that doesn't make this a bad answer - it just means you disagree with the conclusion. \$\endgroup\$ – Jerry Jeremiah Oct 18 at 4:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ I didn't downvote, and I don't have an issue with DMs fudging rolls, BUT intentionally playing your monsters poorly takes away from the game. As a player I always know when my DMs do it and it always robs me of that feeling of accomplishment of winning the encounter "fairly". As a DM, I'd much rather plan a balanced encounter and play the monsters in accordance with their personality and intelligence than cheat the players of a fun encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – James Oct 18 at 14:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ If the monster really is CR12, one attack could well take a bard from full to zero. Not so much a Raging barbarian if we're talking about physical attacks, but it's still a lot. Massive damage instadeath on crit even. This answer might work better for a CR6 monster against two L4 PCs, but it seems the amount of fudging required would be extreme, to the point point where you've reduced the monster's CR significantly. Having it leave on urgent business and/or not be willing to expend per-day or per-rest resources because of some contrived reason (maybe a plot hook) sounds useful, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Oct 18 at 18:48

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