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The title is basically the question. I'm prepping a session, which might feature a battle between the PCs aiding a wounded Copper Dragon and a Red Dragon with its Kobold tribe, so I was looking over the two creatures. But I'm confused as to why both of these Dragons have (almost) the same challenge rating at the same size.

Specifically, both the Young Copper Dragon and Young Red Dragon from the SRD have a challenge rating of 7.

However, the Red Dragon is Large vs the Medium Copper Dragon, has much more strength, better saves, more powerful attacks (because of a higher BAB, because due to its size it gets 3 extra natural weapons, because it has Reach on its bite and because all of them deal more base damage), more HD (and thus much more HP) and a vastly more powerful Breath Weapon.

Why are both of these creatures CR 7? If you pit them against each other, the Red Dragon would absolutely slaughter the Copper one (which, incidentally, is exactly what happened in the story, but still) so what makes it that these two creatures are considered an equal challenge to a party of adventurers?

I'm guessing (at least) one of these two CR values are wildly off the mark, but which is it? Is the Young Red Dragon a reasonable challenge for a 7th level party and the Young Copper Dragon a pushover, or is the Young Copper Dragon a fair challenge and the Young Red Dragon a certain way to wipe your party? I want the encounter to be hard, but I don't want to massacre the party.

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    \$\begingroup\$ All dragons tend to be badly-CRed. Usually, their CR is too low, and they are vastly more powerful than their CR indicates – precisely because they were “supposed to be tough for their CR.” In most cases, they are – murderously so. There’s at least one dragon that has sorcerer spellcasting higher than its CR – because, you know, being strapped to a d12, all-good-save, natural-attack-filled, energy-breathing dragon chassis is bad for a sorcerer... \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jan 31 '15 at 17:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ That comment might also be worthy of an answer. It's good to know that these guys have too low CR as is, because I was going to use one a few points of CR above the party in order to make it difficult, which apparently isn´t neccesary at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jan 31 '15 at 17:53
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Challenge rating

...shows the average level of a party of adventurers for which one creature would make an encounter of moderate difficulty.

This makes challenge rating a better instrument to measure how monsters stack up against a party of adventurers than how monsters stack up against each other.

A more precise instrument to measure how a monster-on-monster battle may run is effective character level (ECL). The Draconomicon lists the lowest-Hit-Dice young red dragon as ECL 19 and the lowest-Hit-Dice young copper dragon as ECL 15. Using these figures (instead of the creatures' challenge ratings or Hit Dice or whatever) makes the aforementioned young copper dragon's encounter with the young red dragon very difficult (DMG 49), which, as you've noted, it is.1

But even this slightly more precise instrument is still a club not a scalpel. Determining which monster wins in an unseen monster-on-monster fight should be the DM's call and used to further the plot, making excuses for the lower-powered monsters when necessary to enhance verisimilitude (e.g. "Yeah, the copper rolled nothing but critical hits and the red failed every saving throw--it was amazing; it's too bad you missed it").

"But what are these creatures' actual CRs?"

Dragons' CRs are far too low if all their strengths are played to--each is, at least, a sorcerer engine in a dragon chassis, after all, and sorcerers are already among the game's most powerful classes--, but dragons are much closer to their printed CR if played like big, meaty melee monsters with the default feats from the Monster Manual (e.g. no Rapidstrike et al., no Shock Trooper, no Travel Devotion). It's the DM's task to make sure that the dragon and the environment in which the dragon's confronted are appropriate to his PCs' abilities instead of either slaughtering the party or allowing a legendary beast be unceremoniously assassinated (unless that's the goal).

A customized-by-the-DM wily young copper dragon that efficiently uses all of its resources can, certainly, defeat a straight-from-the-Monster-Manual young red dragon that's down on its luck, hungry, caught unawares, and used to biting everything to death... but either of those could be an EL 7 encounter. It's part of the DM's job to evaluate each monster to determine its suitability. Encounter design, unfortunately or not, is more art than science.


  1. That these ECLs are likely excessive is another issue entirely.
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    \$\begingroup\$ It may be worth emphasising that the abilities of a copper dragon are more relevant against squishy humanoids than a a red dragon: spider climb makes a hostile copper in complex tunnels a lot more terrifyingly ambush-y à la Aliens (and negates a lot of the typical "how to make dragon fight easier: box it in so it can't fly out of melee range" advice), but that's not going to impact a red as much. Similarly, being able to control the rock around the party could be devastating if used right, but wouldn't be as useful against an angry red. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 31 '15 at 17:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Although I think it'd be interesting (and fun) to examine dragons in light of how they'd engage the PCs, the question leaves unsaid much that relies on the campaign's house rules and setting. (Spell selection alone--even just 1st-level spells--changes pretty much everything, and feats make it crazy.) I hesitate to add such information to this answer, but as an answer to a separate question? Absolutely. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jan 31 '15 at 18:17
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If you check the CR ratings from the other matallic and chromatic dragons you see that the values of a young red dragon are between those for a young gold dragon (CR 9) and young silver dragon (CR 7). So I think it could be possible that the CR for the young red dragon is too low.

The copper dragon hast values more like a young green dragon (CR 5). So his CR might be too high.

No play experience to back this observations.

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