In the DND 5e Critical Role source book Explorer's Guide to Wildemount, there is an adventure Frozen Sick. One of the encounters in it seems a little strong to me. (The adventure is also available online - this is the specific encounter).

At the point this encounter takes place, the party is expected to be level 1 (and presumably consist of an average of 4 PCs). The enemies are

  • a named Dwarf Cult Fanatic, modified to have the racial Darkvision and Poison resistances, and a speed reduced to 15ft
  • a named Elf Cultist, modified to have the racial Darkvision, Charm and Sleep resistances

A Cult Fanatic is CR 2, a Cultist CR 1/8, for a combined encounter value of 712XP. The Deadly range for four level 1 PCs starts at 400, making this roughly 175% of a Deadly encounter. Heck, even a Cult Fanatic on their own would be 450XP, into the Deadly range.

I realise CR is a bit of an inexact science, but even so this seems to have a high chance of being lethal, especially given how fragile level 1 tends to be. I can't really believe that the reduced speed compensates enough; but I could be wrong. It also well exceeds the Lazy DM Deadly benchmark of "combined enemy CR greater than 1/4 total party level" (the combined CR is, in fact, over half the total party level).

Does this encounter seem too Deadly to you?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ What do you consider "unbalanced" to be? What do you consider "too Deadly" to be? As you note, this encounter is 175% Deadly, whether or not you consider that "too Deadly" seems to be up to your opinion. \$\endgroup\$
    – user73918
    Nov 18, 2021 at 0:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ A fair point, the DMG doesn't have a rating for "don't do this"; although I imagine "most" tables would balk at an encounter with a solid chance of one-shotting a PC before they've left 1st-level. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chowlett
    Nov 18, 2021 at 15:17

3 Answers 3


Yes, this encounter is unbalanced

A cult fanatic is a low level characters worst nightmare for one simple reason: Inflict wounds.

At 1st level inflict wounds deals 16.5 necrotic damage. This is enough to reliably one-shot low hp pc's, such as a sorcerer or a wizard but with good rolls or low constitution on the player's side even someone with a d8 hit die should be scared of death. The classes with a d10 hit die can be less scared but a 1st level inflict wounds would still knock the average fighter and even barbarian unconscious in one hit. And the worst thing: the cult fanatic has two 2nd level slots for an average damage of 22 points of damage. That is enough to make a barbarian scared to die in one hit (considering the chance to deal 30 or more damage is almost 10 percent).

As someone who has killed a pc with inflict wounds before: I would be very careful when running this encounter. While the cult fanatic only has a speed of 15 feet and can be kited easily it is important to remember that area C6 is also very small. One bad roll on initiative and your character might be dead.

All this makes it particularly important that you set the scene appropriately for your players. Make it clear who or what they're dealing with and let them use the element of surprise. If the players start a conversation it is in your best interest to discourage them from fighting because the only way they stand a chance is if they can use their extra surprise round to either capture them or take them out before they can do anything.

If combat starts on even footing an the two factions are very close to each other, at least one player character is almost certainly doomed (unless inflict wounds misses, of course).

One might argue that the encounter is balanced because of the chance to miss, but I disagree. I think that even a chance to one-shot a pc is too much and should be avoided at all costs.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Not to mention Hold Person to help get that Inflict Wounds off for massive damage (Advantage on the attack, any hit is a Crit). In my case, the party are Level 2 (as I started the module after a few sessions); but that's still a quite possible one-shot. Caution duly taken... \$\endgroup\$
    – Chowlett
    Nov 17, 2021 at 14:46
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Chowlett Yes but since it is usually a 4v2 encounter (assuming its a 4 person party) she might not even live for two rounds if the entire party attacks her (and all attacks hit) so I ignored that. The problem kinda comes from the fact that it is extremely unlikely for the entire party to roll higher initiative than her (which is also why the element of surprise is so important) \$\endgroup\$
    – Soulstreak
    Nov 17, 2021 at 14:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ The description of deadly encounter is "A deadly encounter could be lethal for one or more player characters. Survival often requires good tactics and quick thinking, and the party risks defeat." - it seems to me this fits with your logic that this encounter could cause PCs to die. I guess what I want to ask is, does this make it unbalanced? It sounds like it perfectly fits the Deadly category. \$\endgroup\$
    – user73918
    Nov 18, 2021 at 7:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TelekeneticBarbarian I understood "balanced" as a challenge that is both fun and fair to overcome while actually being a challenge. This poses the question: is a deadly encounter balanced? Are there deadly encounters that aren't and some that are? - Probably, yeah. But in this case specifically, where one enemy has the capacity to straight up one-shot a character I wouldn't call it balanced. \$\endgroup\$
    – Soulstreak
    Nov 18, 2021 at 7:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Soulstreak I can appreciate that. It might be good to explicitly state that in your answer, because I find the idea of a "balanced encounter" to be kind of undefined. Hope that makes sense. \$\endgroup\$
    – user73918
    Nov 18, 2021 at 7:47

The Encounter is in line with what a Deadly encounter is described to be in the DMG

TL;DR: There is a moderate chance of one PC being instantly killed by a upcasted inflict wounds that can't easily be mitigated, but the party will almost certainly win the encounter unless suitably injured coming in, making it in line with a standard Deadly encounter. It's not unbalanced from a fight design, it just is designed to have a chance kill a PC with no player agency. If you want to fix it, start the PCs at 20' away from the fanatic.

A Deadly encounter is described as:

A deadly encounter could be lethal for one or more player characters. Survival often requires good tactics and quick thinking, and the party risks defeat.

Upon first inspection, the cult fanatic is scary: it can cast second level inflict wounds three times-- potentially making a PC unconscious or even instantly dead three times. The problem is with its 13 AC and 33 HP, it simply can't take any punishment and in our particular case: can be easily kited-- take away inflict wounds and suddenly the encounter becomes trivialized.

In fact I wrote a script to simulate this combat versus a tactic-less naive group of 4 melee fighters-- about the worse case scenario. Keep in mind all the players have to do is stay 20 feet away and shoot at range and the damage CR of the fanatic is reduced from CR3 to CR1 (10 dps/turn from spiritual weapon and sacred flame), that with its already Defensive CR1 nature, all the party has to do is end their turn 20' away from it and the fanatic is identical to a CR1 creature. A cast of Entangle, Grease, Command, Earth Tremor etc. solves the combat.

The details of the simulation are below, but here are the results of 100000 runs.

Average Number of Rounds: 2.59

Average Number of PCs Unconscious: .487

Average Number of Dead PCs: .136

Win Chance for PCs: 99.5%

The only problem, as you mention, is the fanatic gets a lucky Inflict Wounds that hits and does high damage. A 13.5% of killing a PC I think is very much in line with the description above of a deadly encounter-- and remember this is the naive, melee only party that can't cast spells and is almost unoptimized: your party is almost certainly build wise more effective than this. If you want to make any changes, swap out inflict wounds for a lower burst option that still engages the party like Grease or Earth Tremor.

Simulation Details: 4 fighters with 16 in Strength and 16 in Con, wearing chain mail and a shield, wielding a longsword with the Dueling fighting style for 1d8+3+2 damage. The cultists attack the fighter that's last in initiative, and the fighters burn down the fanatic and then the cultist. Note: even if you remove Dueling, the chances of character death only rises by about 4% and the winrate drops around 1%. We can feel decently confident in our results as this makes sense: turn 1, 3 fighters deal 3d8+9 damage with a +5 to hit, turn 2: 2 fighters deal 2d8+6-- even in the best case scenario, with the fanatic killing a fighter per turn (incredibly unlikely), the fighters still have a 20% chance of killing the fanatic. Add in dueling and the odds are 87%.

*Note: In response to comments, it was asked what if the minor threat, the cultist was focused first: this gives the cult fanatic a better chance at hitting with a lethal inflict of wounds, changing rounds to 2.60, KOs to 0.637, deaths to 0.182, and win chance to 99.2%

If your party is Level 2 like you mentioned, our simulation gives us average player deaths to be 0.0722.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Nov 22, 2021 at 23:26

Yes. The CR is too high, but more importantly, a little envelope math tells you the PCs have a very good chance of dying if the high mental stats enemy spellcaster remembers to use almost any of her spells.

The cultist is not a big issue except as a roadblock. Generally, 1-2 hits will knock him out and he is quite easy to hit and does not do much damage. For the purposes of encounter design, he's a Goblin Minion.

The spellcaster on the other hand is death incarnate. 33 hp and AC 13 combined with a minion means they are very likely to get a turn to act, and unless the party is optimized, two turns. If the party makes noise and they can prepare, they have 15 AC. On a turn they are within 15' of any character (extremely likely given many 1st level PCs are built around melee and the npc starts in a small room) their turn is +3 to hit for 3d10 or 4d10 damage (inflict wounds, oneshots) followed or preceeded by a bonus action to +3 for 1d8+1, which genuinely can knock down a low-HD character or more likely, follow up on the cultist's successful dagger attack to knock one down.

There is every chance that vs a relatively unoptimized party of 4 1st level characters, this spellcaster simply kills all of them. Optimized characters have a better chance of taking them down, simply due to doing more damage and hp (having more Con, moving into flanking positions, reliably having 16-17 in their primary stat etc). But at 1st level that is not a huge gap, and they can still die to this npc if unlucky.

The slow move speed is not hugely relevant. They start mostly within range of the npc's movement. They will only know that the npc can use a powerful inflict wounds many times once they close to melee (and someone probably gets knocked unconscious) - fleeing at that point almost guarantees that someone will be left behind, either by opportunity attacks with daggers knocking someone out, the inflicted person being knocked out, or just initiative order meaning someone is left alone to get beaten on. Most players/characters are unwilling to leave a party member behind especially if the enemy is a limping dwarf. They'll trickle back and die. Even in a ranged attack duel, the dwarf is pretty formidable - their cantrip has all the range for a corridor battle, and so does spiritual weapon. In a featureless open field vs PCs on horses with longbows, it might be a different story. But two chances at 1d8 is pretty solid and may outpace an entire party's ranged attacks if they lack any ranged specialists and the fanatic has buffed herself to 15 AC.

The CR calculator can produce some bad fights, especially once you take into account party makeup. But here it and the basic math agree - this is a too-hard fight for 1st level characters. 2nd level characters have a much better time due to far more HP to fight with, but it's still potentially a rough battle for them.

Fix this fight by replacing the fanatic's spells with those available to a 2nd level cleric and lowering its hp to 23. That makes it still potentially a rough customer - shield of faith + inflict wounds, along with a distraction minion - but one that goes down easier and doesn't also have a bonus action attack, meaning it's far less likely to kill off your party due to a few bad rolls (requiring instead the more standard 'quite a few' bad rolls).

  • \$\begingroup\$ You can't cast Spiritual Weapon and Inflict Wounds on the same turn. (Technically Spiritual+Dagger, then Inflict Wounds upcasted does slightly more damage but you decrease the chances of knocking a player unconscious turn 1 so dramatically that you're better off using Inflict Wounds). And Inflict Wounds only has ~45% to hit. Also players can disengage, use their movement to flee, and then the fanatic has to either dash to stay in melee (dealing low damage with spiritual weapon), or give up pursuit and become effectively a CR1 monster, and all of this is assuming a naive melee only party. \$\endgroup\$
    – user45338
    Nov 18, 2021 at 5:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @zacm fair enough on spiritual weapon, but your last point assumes a flat featureless plain. Refer to the adventure map for the existence of corners. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Nov 18, 2021 at 5:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ A party by and large is going to be advantaged from corners peaking: the cult fanatic can only prepare one reaction to let off a sacred flame, and either eat a bunch of shots until they die, or the fanatic can retreat to a corner and try to peak the party, but the party has 4 reactions to ready a volley. \$\endgroup\$
    – user45338
    Nov 18, 2021 at 5:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ not sure why you assumed 'corner peeking sniping' is what I meant. you can't shoot around corners. corners can be used to create situations where enemies need to come around most of the corner to shoot, at which point they can be moved to and melee attacked. unless you don't use turn order in your games at which stage, you're not really playing dnd 5e as we know it. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Nov 18, 2021 at 5:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ready an action: "Attack/Cast Cantrip on Enemy Appear" is perfectly reasonable. Corner peaking is pop out, shoot an attack, go back behind full cover. Either the fanatic plays ranged games which they will lose, or they charge down the hallway, which makes them lose again. Melee is the best option, and even that will result in the PCs winning-- the only question is will a PC get unluckily oneshot early on. If you have any other questions on the strategies I'd be happy to discuss it further in a chat or draw up some diagrams, without the grid it can be a bit difficult to explain. \$\endgroup\$
    – user45338
    Nov 18, 2021 at 6:01

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