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There is this question about if Conjure Woodland Beings is broken -- due to the fact that you can possibly summon eight pixies with it and multiply our level four spell slot by a factor of eight for an hour, turning your entire party into Giant Apes or whatever. The answer is that the spell is not broken, because the DM can have some other fey appear, sidestepping the question if getting pixies would be broken.

That however leaves the question if the pixie is inherently not placed at the right challenge rating. After all, it would hardly be broken if a pixie was CR 2 and the spell only got one. Is a pixie really only as dangerous as the typical CR 1/4 creature, or what challenge rating should it be?

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Frame challenge : CR isn't a good metric regarding danger level for pixies

As noticed in other answers, the pixie is an unusual creature in that it has very strong tools with very strong weaknesses. The wide array of spells allows for many possible deadly strategies, while the very low hp value makes it one of the most fragile creatures you can face.

The way pixies are designed means that facing them can go two possible ways : either their strategy plays out and PCs will be facing a very dangerous situation, or the strategy is countered and the fight will be a piece of cake.

The encounter can indeed go from one end to the other very easily, depending on a few factors such as immunity to Sleep or which side has surprise. Even one of these factors can turn "deadly encounter where most PCs get oneshot" into "one casting of Magic Missile and it's done".

In that regards, no matter what CR you decide for the pixie, you will not be able to use it as a proper "danger value".

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    \$\begingroup\$ Frame Challenge: Consider X a clever strategy a person at the game table has come up with, either by themselves or by reading about it on the web. - - Proposal: Unless X increases the fun factor for EVERYONE at the game table, DM included, X should not be allowed. - - Postulate 1: If X derails the adventure or shortchanges an encounter and wastes DM time it's not fun. - - Postulate 2: Springing X on DM during an encounter is not as fun as talking it out before the game. - - Corolary: X should be discussed and agreed to in advance before it is used. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 25, 2022 at 20:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mindwin: That's probably valid at some tables and heresy at others. If your game is very narrativist, derailing the plot is obviously undesirable, but a highly simulationist game might benefit from unexpected twists and turns. And then you have the people who play Paranoia in Zap style (and like it that way)... \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Nov 25, 2022 at 22:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was kind of joking. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 28, 2022 at 13:38
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No, CR 1/4 is appropriate.

In a vacuum, the pixie statblock is actually pretty unremarkable. It has one hit point and no attacks. It has one damaging spell which it can cast one per day, and it can cast polymorph once per day. When it uses polymorph, it is limited to changing itself into a CR 1/4 or power beast. By itself, it’s significantly weaker than most CR 1/4 creatures. So what’s the deal?

Stronger allies means stronger targets for polymorph. The pixie can’t create a giant ape unless it has a level 8 or CR 8 ally to target. This is why conjure woodland beings is borked - it puts 8 polymorph casting creatures into the hands of the leveled party. A pixie flying around by itself can barely do anything to harm you.

Another way to look at it as that the thing that is broken about pixies is outside the scope of Challenge Rating. Pixies can be overpowered in certain party compositions, but Challenge Rating only considers the properties of the creature, not the encounter design the creature is placed into. This is just one of the limitations of challenge rating that DMs need to be aware of. Pixies aren’t the only creature with similar issues. Lots of creatures will do much better or much worse depending on which allies they have to round out the encounter, and challenge rating doesn’t account for that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If it can change into a wolf then by itself it can't really be weaker than a wolf, it's effectively a wolf + a pixie \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Nov 25, 2022 at 9:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri No. it can’t be both at the same time, and since both are 1/4, it averages out to 1/4. Not sure why you think a sum makes sense here. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 25, 2022 at 9:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ A pixie only has flexibility if it knows a fight is coming, because it needs an action to change and it has 1 hit point. It's also super dangerous to turn into a wolf, because it you hit the wolf for its hp+1 the pixie also dies along with it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Nov 25, 2022 at 12:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik but that same blow would kill it anyway, as a wolf it basically has temp hp \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Nov 25, 2022 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri only if it'd still hit, outside of the Wolf form the pixie is invisible & can fly and so often avoid the fight entirely. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Nov 26, 2022 at 10:07
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No, Pixies are not overpowered

They have 1d4-1 hit points - the lowest of all CR 1/4 creatures in MM and even less than a lot of CR 0 creatures have. Anything that hits one is going to kill it. They have no attacks. Out of all its spells, only a single one is even capable of directly dealing damage. They can cast a couple of spells once per day each and that's basically all they are capable of. Druidcraft, the only spell they can use at will is basically a parlour trick, not really useful for anything.

Yes, they do have Superior Invisibility and a good Stealth bonus but what can they really use that for? Superior Invisibility is a concentration-based ability, which means they cannot cast another concentration spell while invisible, and the majority of its spells require concentration, the only 2 that don't are Dispel Magic and Sleep.

I don't think they are overpowered, considering other CR 1/4 creatures in MM they are actually on the weaker side. They do have Polymorph, which they can cast once per day but that hardly makes them overpowered - what they can transform a creature into is limited by that creature's existing CR rating, so in theory they can transform a monster into a different monster but still one of a comparable power. It's potentially a strong spell when used on a PC but that does not factor into its CR. CR is used to roughly estimate the level of threat a creature poses to the party and to balance encounters, it's not meant to cover cases like the one described in that questions about Conjure Woodland Beings.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If the spell says a PC can conjure eight fey creatures of CR 1/4 or lower, then the game is using CR to measure the value of a creature as a PC ally, not just the level of threat a creature poses to the party. But maybe that's more a problem with the spell, not with Pixies. \$\endgroup\$
    – user56480
    Nov 26, 2022 at 8:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user56480 the spell explicitly leaves control of what appears with the DM because it acknowledges that "combat threat" and "value as an ally" are not always the same. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Nov 27, 2022 at 9:54
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Pixies are unbalanced

Pixies have Superior Invisibility that makes them and any equipment they carry invisible. They also have a whopping Stealth +7 on top. They can all cast Druidcraft (at will), and all of the following once per day.

  • Cantrips: dancing lights
  • Level 1: entangle, sleep, detect evil and good
  • Level 2: phantasmal force, detect thoughts
  • Level 3: dispel magic, fly
  • Level 4: polymorph, confusion

The spell contingent is nearly as good as a level 7 spellcaster (They have one less first, second and third level spell and one more 4th level spell, so they are two levels short).

To balance it they only have one hit point and no damaging attacks.

I think this is a good example on how extreme strengths and weaknesses do not sum up to a balanced creature.

Combinations

As Thomas is pointing out, the first issue is that pixies rarely appear all by themselves. Typically, there are other woodland creatures, wolves, bears, boars etc., that they are friends with. In the case of them being conjured, these are the PCs.

That means, in many cases they will not even have to do the fighting or damage dealing by themselves, they can entirely focus on their overpowered control aspects, casting confusion on the opponents, or polymorphing other higher CR monsters to double their combat life. So their underpowered weak side does not matter, while their overpowered upside does.

But let's ignore these situations, and look just at what they could do all by themselves.

Encounter balance

According to the encounter budgeting math on DMG p. 82, a party of 4 PCs of second level has an XP threshold for a medium encounter of 400XP. A pixie at CR 1/4 is worth 50 XP, and with a multiplier of 2 for 3-6 appearing, an encounter for such a party with 4 pixies should be a medium difficulty encounter that they suffer "no casualties. One or more of them might need to use healing resources."

Realistically, with their stealth and invisibility, pixies will be able to get surprise and ambush a party of PCs pretty much every time. Their spell DC does not even matter in such an encounter: they can all cast sleep, which will generate enough hp (on average 22) to put every party member of a level 2 party to sleep.

They can then polymorph into wolves and kill the sleeping PCs with pack attacks, one after the other. With advantage to the attack and average 7 damage per bite, and auto crits on a hit due to unconsciousness, the prone and sleeping PCs are unlikely to survive.

Alternatively, they could use the polymorph spells on the sleeping PCs turning them into snails. They then can carry all PCs who failed their save and now are snails up 60 feet per round, and drop them to the ground for 20d6 of fall damage, the first point of damage of will turn the PCs back to their normal form, and the remaining damage will kill them.

There is a high likelyhood that such an encounter will result in the death of at least one PC, and quite possibly in a total party kill. This is clearly not within the range of a medium encounter suggested by their CR.

Possible CR

Just based on the spellcasting arsenal they have and the implied level, they should likely be somewhere around CR 3. Their weaknesses pull this down as they are ridiculously easy to kill, once you get a drop on them, even with a decent Armor Class of 15 and Magic Resistance, that side is more like what you see in CR 0 or CR 1/8 creatures.

I think this imbalance in abilities makes them hard to correctly put at any CR, but a CR like at least 1/2 or 1 would be more appropriate for how they play. At CR 1/2 they would constitute a "deadly" encounter for a party of level 2, meaning it "could be lethal for one or more player characters", at CR 1 it would be so for a level 3 party.


PS. The calculated CR for pixies is 1

While I do not put much stock into the calculation of CRs using the DMG rules for Creating a Monster on p. 274, they can give us a benchmark value for the Pixie CR.

Defensive Challenge Rating: 1 hp, CR 0. Modified by Armor Class 15, Magic Resistance for effective AC 17, Superior Invisibility for effective AC 19 and flight for effective AC 21. Increase by one step for each 2 points of AC over 13 means increase by 4 steps: New CR 1.

Offensive Challenge Rating: Damage per round: 0, CR 0. Use the save DC instead of damage per round, as the monster relies more on spells, instead of attacks, to modify. DC <= 13 does not change this. Spellcasting increasing damage per round to 9 increases this (still unmodified by the save DC) to: New CR 1.

Average Challenge Rating: (1 + 1)/2 rounded down = 1

CR-modifying special abilities

This section covers the detailed features that modify the base CR rating numbers from hp, AC, to hit, damage and DC.

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.

Magic Resistance: increase the effective AC by 2.

Flying Monster: Increase the effective AC by 2. This one is debatable, as it requires the monster can deal damage at range. I'll take the use of phantasmal force as meaning it can. The argument that characters under level 10 have a harder time to deal with flyers remains valid, especially in combination with stealth and invisibility.

Innate spellcasting: The rule for this says

The impact that the Innate Spellcasting and Spellcasting special traits have on a monster's challenge rating depends on the spells that the monster can cast. 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

The monsters normal attack routine deals no damage, so that is an easy bar to clear. This section does not apply only to direct damage spells, as it does not say so. It only requires that the spell "can deal more damage than the monster's normal attack routine", here more than none. Phantasmal Force can deal 1d6 psychic damage per round, and would qualify.

For sleep it depends if you count the effect as "damage". One can argue that sleep damage is no "real" damage and should not count, but it takes opponents out of combat based on hit points dealt, just like real damage, and in practical terms against lower hp opponents, is one of the most effective attacks the Pixie has. If you count it as damage, you would apply the following rule

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.

This would mean 22.5 points of sleep damage the first round (on average), and then 3.5 points of psychic damage in the second and third round (7 for both), for a total of 29.5 damage, or divided by 3 rounded down, 9 damage per round.

Polymorph on itself can transform it to, for example a wolf, which would deal 7 damage and have 11 hit points, but would have lower AC and no flight, turning it into another CR 1/4 creature, so do I think polymorph, while at the root of this question, does not actually change the CR as per the calculation rules.

Caveats

It is well known that these rules do not capture all the possible interactions that a creature's features can generate -- for example here the pixie polymorphing its victim to something tiny and harmless and then dropping it with flight from a large height to kill it. Therefore the MM monsters often differ, both in individual cases, and even systematically. Moreover, even the monsters in the MM vary widely when it comes to combat strength. I do agree with Matthieu, that CR may not be a good gauge of power to begin with, and it at best a clunky and unreliable tool.

Creating a monster isn't just a number-crunching exercise. The guidelines in this chapter can help you create monsters, but the only way to know whether a monster is fun is to playtest it. After seeing your monster in action, you might want to adjust the challenge rating up or down based on your experiences.

So it is clear that the CR should NOT just be based on the hp, AC, damage and to hit stats, but on how the monster plays in actual encounters. I think that the calculated CR of 1 (or even of 1/2, if you are more conservative in how to treat sleep or flight) is both a better match for this than the MM's CR 1/4.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Nov 28, 2022 at 12:31
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Pixies aren't overpowered - Polymorph is.

The problem with Polymorph is that it substitutes character level for CR. Those things aren't equivalent, not even close. So Polymorphing anything with a CR won't be a significant power boost, but Polymorphing a player character into something with a CR means that character is now by themselves a hard encounter for 4 player characters of that level.

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