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Monster Deadliness: In the DMG (p.82) there is guidance about the calculating encounter deadliness. This is entirely based on the XP of the monsters encountered, and each challenge rating (CR) has a fixed number of XP associated with it. So all monsters of a given CR should be comparable in terms of deadliness.

By this logic, confronting for example a level one group with any 4 CR 1/4 monsters should be a similarily difficult encounter. Based on simulated combats, this equivalence is not observed. Some monsters are much more dangerous than their peers of the same CR. For example on CR 1 the Brown Bear was much deadlier than a Ghoul.

Some encounters can be much more deadly than their CR suggests, and result in unexpected Total Party Kill or permanent loss or mutilation of player characters.

Therefore, I am interested in advice on how to avoid creating encounters with monsters that are surprisingly more effective and deadly than their XP value would suggest according to the encounter building guidelines. Are there specific problem monsters?

The intent of this question is not the accuracy of the challenge calculations in the DMG (I think the encounters tend to be less deadly than what the DMG suggests). I am interested here primarily in how to avoid unexpected killer encounters caused by monsters that deviate from what you typically experience with a given challenge rating, the outliers.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Per request, the conversation trying to resolve the question's scope has been moved to chat. Feel free to make use of that space :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Feb 13 at 15:42

3 Answers 3

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1. Understand what Challenge Rating is and is not.

You're already on the right track here, as you have observed that there are some situations where Challenge Rating magnificently fails to capture the danger a monster or group of monsters represents. The first step in recognizing monsters that can lead to problematic encounters is understanding exactly what Challenge Rating does represent. Fortunately, the Dungeon Master's Guide gives thorough guidance on this in the chapter 9 section Creating a Monster.

The short version is that Challenge Rating is based almost entirely on the raw numbers - hit points, accuracy, damage, armor class, saves - with guidance for converting some monster features that aren't explicitly numeric into numeric equivalents that you can factor into the calculations.

This is all Challenge Rating is trying to do.

As you have observed, there can be monster features and encounter designs that are not fairly represented by Challenge Rating, and this is usually because one or monsters in an encounter have features that do not translate into numbers we can include in the calculation. We will examine a few concrete examples of this later.

To give a concrete "action item" here for getting toward a solution to your problem, I would first recommend: become very familiar with the "Creating a Monster" section in chapter 9. Study the moving parts of challenge Rating presented there, so that when you are designing encounters, you will be able to point out features that don't fit into that paradigm, because these features will be the first place to look for potentially problematic encounters.

2. Vanilla monsters are typically not going to be an issue.

This point follows naturally from the exposition above: if the Challenge Rating methodology accounts for all of a monster's features, don't worry about it. This is probably obvious, but still worth observing. When determining if an encounter may "punch above its weight class", don't spend too much time looking for issues with monsters that don't have any non-numeric features. If a monster just hits stuff, the Challenge Rating is probably accurate.

3. Know your player characters.

This one is really important: you need to know the characters really well. You need to have an understanding of what they are capable of and what their weaknesses are. One encounter might present an insurmountable obstacle for one party composition, and may be trivial for another.

For example, in one of my games, we recently traversed the Caves of Hunger beneath the frozen wastes of Icewind Dale. I won't give too many details because spoilers, but there is one encounter where the entire party may be subject to a powerful charm effect. Without a reliable method of dealing with this, this encounter can be incredibly difficult. However, I was playing a Twilight Domain cleric, who has a handy feature called Twlight Sanctuary:

Whenever a creature (including you) ends its turn in the sphere, you can grant that creature one of these benefits:

  • You grant it temporary hit points equal to 1d6 plus your cleric level.
  • You end one effect on it causing it to be charmed or frightened.

My ability to just end the charm effect for free trivialized this encounter for us. Without this ability, we would have been in huge trouble. If you have a good awareness of what features the party has access to, you can keep those things in mind as you design encounters. You can ask yourself, "Does the party of any means of countering this?" If there is a monster feature the party has no counter to, then that is a feature you need to give more consideration to as you build your encounter.

4. Monsters with Paralyzing, Stunning, and Dominating features are automatically suspect.

These are features that you can assume without too much analysis may present trouble for the party. Both Paralyzed and Stunned inflict the Incapacitated condition, and will generally completely remove a character from the combat for at least one round. If you have designed your encounter around four characters, but one of them end up stunned for two rounds, that alone can be enough to overwhelm the remaining characters if the encounter was already going to be difficult without considering the incapacitating effects.

With this, I would challenge something stated in the question:

For example on CR 1 the Brown Bear was much deadlier than a Ghoul.

Brown bears are simple beasts. They scratch and bite, and as long as someone in the party can eat those hits, there won't be any surprises in terms of encounter difficulty. On the other hand, the ghoul, while weaker by-the-numbers than the brown bear, has this nifty feature:

Claws. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (2d4 + 2) slashing damage. If the target is a creature other than an elf or undead, it must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or be paralyzed for 1 minute. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.

If the ghoul manages to stick one of these to one of the characters, that character is useless for at least one round, and paralysis has the added complication:

Any attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature.

Paralysis can make the party tank quite squishy once attacks against them have advantage and hit twice as hard. One failed save can turn an otherwise pedestrian encounter into a wipe.

Creatures with dominate X features have the same problem, but make the issue worse by giving the dominated characters actions to the enemy for at least one round.

5. Petrification should be a plot device until at least late Tier 2.

Petrification presents the same in-combat problems as Stunned and Paralyzed, but typically has the added bonus of being semi-permanent. Darth Pseudonym asks about this in their Q&A: Petrification at low levels. The problem with petrification is that the players generally won't have an immediately accessible means of curing unless they have a cleric and are at least 9th level for access to greater restoration:

You can [...] end one of the following effects on the target:

  • One effect that charmed or petrified the target

Prior to 9th level, the party cannot cure petrification unless you give them a means to do so. Here's how I handled it:

In one of the games I ran, one of the members of the 5th level party was petrified by a basilisk. At the end of that session, I had a conversation with the table about what they wanted to do about it:

Thomas: Okay guys, Chris’s character is petrified, which for the moment, is basically death. Now, Tessa’s character (the cleric) would know that the temple in the capital provides the kind of care that can reverse petrification, but they usually require some work to be done. So your options here are: Chris, you can just roll a new character, or, if the rest of you want to, you can pursue getting Chris unpetrified.

The party decided to try to get Chris cured. Upon arriving at the temple and talking with the chief priest, they were tasked with accompanying one of the temple’s paladins to consecrate a wilderness temple that had been desecrated and had a necromancer squatting in it. I used this paladin as Chris’s temporary character, and upon returning from the quest, Chris’s character had been cured of petrification.

If the party has greater restoration, then petrified is just another status condition that they can cure with what they have at their disposal. If they don't have it, then it is a candidate for creating perilous situations much like Stunned and Paralyzed, with the additional potential effect of changing the direction of the campaign for many sessions.

6. So what do you do with all of this? Playtesting.

This will add a good bit of time to your prep work. If you really want to know if an encounter might present the problems you ask about in the question, you have to get your player's character sheets and run the encounter yourself. I've done this a lot, because I like to run combat-heavy games. I enjoy combat, and have generally played with tables that feel the same way. Where my game preparation may lack in world building and NPC development, I make up for it in encounter design by spending time running encounters at my kitchen table with dice, minis, my players' character sheets, and my Monster Manual. This is why the other things I've talked about are really important: understanding Challenge Rating, knowing your player characters, and watching out for debilitating effects can save you a lot of time, since those things give you an idea of what encounters need playtesting, and which ones don't.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 but is it worth noting that the creature actually called out as potentially punching above its weight class is the ogre? Because despite being all numerical it has big damage potential, so that is one more thing to watch for, especially with solo monsters at lower levels where HP, healing and damage mitigation is lower. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Feb 13 at 20:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov: Wow, Thank you for such a serious amount of work to provide a useful answer. I want to ask a question about the first point you make: if the CR is just a rough take based on what the DMG calcs spit out Why do multiple monsters in the MM sport a CR that differs from these calculations? To me that only makes sense if the MM CRs are modified to try and account how dangerous they are based on special abilities. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 13 at 20:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin Yep, you’ll often see CRs adjusted to try to account for non-numeric features. The trouble is that these features aren’t well represented numerically. Increasing the CR doesn’t adequately account for a feature if increasing the party’s level does not better equip the party for dealing with the feature. Paralysis presents this problem to the party mostly without regard to party level, until the party is high enough level that failing the save is very unlikely. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 13 at 22:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin In my experience, anything with a save-or-suck effect tends to be really swingy, whether it's a ghoul or a spellcaster. The fight can be much harder or much easier than the CR claims, depending on whether the party makes their saves or can use strategy to avoid the problem. In my games, I try to aim low on the XP totals for fights with these kind of creatures in them -- a Medium fight that turns Hard due to bad saves is a lot better than a Deadly fight that turns into a wipe. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 14 at 0:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik: this is explained in detail in the linked refrence. In brief, it uses a party of rogue, cleric, wizard, fighter of equal level, and tries to find the party level that will lead to a 50:50 outcome of TPK or win over 25 fights. Adjust levels for each member in turn in steps of one. This leads to a total number of party hit dice that is then used to rank how deadly the monster is - the more total levels you need the deadlier. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15 at 6:51
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Change numbers on the fly

With some it's more obvious, but if you see a fight could end in a TPK, how about halving the remaining baddies HP? Start lowkey describing them as wounded / fatigued whatever after the next hit they get and hope that it's enough. If its custom to roll behind the DM Screen on your table use that. For Conditions like Paralyzed etc. maybe introduce a part that "you forgot" that gives +1 for each consecutively failed saving throw.

It's a Pen&Paper game, no hard-coded videogame, its your table your world and your story. Or accept TPKs, but "prepare" them by giving light hints that your enemies are known to take prisoners over dumb slaughter. This obviously doesn't work with animalistic monsters, but Orks, Goblins etc. could reasonably do that. And lowkey hints ealry on weaken that deux-ex-machina feeling after your PCs wake up in chains

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Don't use CR at all

I think your problem showcases the issues with CR. Often I see games that follow this formula:

  • Party: "We enter the dungeon"
  • DM: "You see some goblins"
  • Party: "We attack"
  • DM: "Roll initiative"
  • The fight takes place, the players win
  • Party: "We enter the next room"
  • DM: "You see a troll"
  • ... etc

I think this is a not an ideal reduction of the D&D gameloop. Players are taught that all fights to be roughly equal difficulty, and that every fight is winnable.

Balance is not your problem

Why not have players decide how to deal with enemies? Provided the enemies aren't wildly too strong players can almost always retreat from fights. In general most fights are initiated by the party. It's their job to make a cost-benefit analysis and decide if they can take the fight. This involves things like estimating how much resources the fight will consume, what loot or experience the party will receive, if the fight furthers the party's goals, and if there's another way to achieve what they want.

Instead of you deciding on the perfect number of bears for a fight, put as many bears as would exist in your world and let the party decide how to deal with them. If they are willing to spend the resources to beat the bears that's their choice. If they want to avoid the fight that's their choice too.

In my experience this solves all CR-related problems, including yours, and leads to more interesting games.

Some practical tips for implementing CR-less encounters

  1. Lethal combat should be rare. Failure is a powerful learning opportunity, but in 5e often failure means a TPK and the end of the game. Remove lethal combat from the game as much as possible, and rely on non-lethal failure states.
  2. Monsters shouldn't exist just to die. Think of the monster as a real creature with wants and needs and desires. There's no need for a bear to fight to the death, or chase down and TPK the party, unless it has a really good reason to do so.
  3. Encourage information gathering. Scouting and decision making are parts of the game that are often pushes aside in favour of more combat. Rather than coming across the bear when they open the door, have the bear be further away and unaware of the party, so they can observe it, discuss, and plan.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Examples for #3 and #2 could be a bear cub the group stumbles upon. The cub poses no real threat to the group, but hints at the fact that mama bear might be close (if your players don't pick up on the clue any nature-related character should at least get a hint, the first time). If the group engages or even lingers too long, the mother will attack until she scared the group off. \$\endgroup\$
    – JFBM
    Feb 14 at 7:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JFBM Great example, the mother has a definite goal in that case, there's a lot the party can do to interact with it! \$\endgroup\$ Feb 14 at 8:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ The issue with what you have here is that raw players almost can't retreat from fights. The movement rules mean it's almost always just a stalemate and faster enemies (of which there are a lot) just can't be escaped from. There are ways around it (changing into a chase scene for example) but it isn't an option in the minds of most players once they start to understand the rules. Also how do players know if they can fight 2 bears or 10 bears? They don't so just having as many bears as nature intended makes for a very different game where players have no way of understanding their abilities. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Feb 14 at 10:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ The spirit of your answer is good, but the DM still needs to understand how hard that fight would be in case the players do get into it, so I don't think it helps answer the actual question. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Feb 14 at 10:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri To answer your questions in order: "players can't retreat" yes, they can, they just have to do a little more work than running in a straight line. Keep in mind point 1/2 above. Would an injured bear pursue someone indefinitely? Think logically. "how do players know if they can fight 2 bears or 10 bears" in short; experience, research, analysis. "the DM still needs to understand how hard that fight would be" it's great if the DM does, but it's unnecessary - let the players decide how to react to the fight. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 14 at 23:46

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