I'm interested in running a Hexcrawl Sandbox style game in pathfinder. The hexes would dictate what range of CR the encounter tables would contain. What I'm wondering is at what CR magic items start becoming a major factor in the balance. And in what way do these issues affect the game.

There will be spell casting classes allowed for PCs and there will be magic items out there to be found and so I am apprehensive to call it "low magic".

Where this style of game will differ is in how gold and magic won't be awarded for each and every encounter by the virtue of it being an encounter. Wealth and magic as a reward won't be a guarantee for facing an encounter.

If players find through exploration some ancient ruins and choose to face the risks inside it then they could find wealth and magic. Though if the players don't find such locations, or choose to play it safe and not enter, they might end up facing many battles with wolves and spiders and gain enough experience to start levelling up without having found magic items or large sums of money. Additionally there won't be spell casters in the towns capable of crafting magic items should the players find wealth.

Because of these structures there is a chance but not a guarantee that the players will get magic items. It is far more likely that players will gain experience faster and more consistently than magic items.

This is why I'm interested in the relationship between CR and magic items. But I'm not interested in "rebalancing" encounters or rebalancing the classes. I'm curious to hear about people's experiences with this relationship and specifically when the balance issues become apparent and in what ways they impacted game play.

I would like to see if it is feasible to do with pathfinder, but I'm starting to lean towards dnd 5e as its encounters aren't balanced with magic items in mind (from what I understand).

Thanks in advance for your thoughts!


3 Answers 3


In very broad terms, the CR of a creature is based on three factors:

  • Numbers. Attack bonuses and AC, save DCs and saving throws, etc. etc.

  • Requirements. Magic weapons for overcoming DR/magic. Flight, or ways of dealing with others having it. Teleporting, or again ways of dealing with it. Protection from various status effects (e.g. those things that protection from evil, freedom of movement, death ward, mind blank, and so on block).

  • “Puzzles.” Anything that requires a very-specific trick: a particular type of energy damage to overcome regeneration, ghost touch or similar for incorporeal creatures, and so on.

In all cases, it is very important to remember that CR is notoriously unreliable. Even if you run everything by-the-book and have an exceptionally generic party, CR cannot be relied on; any given CR has a wide power range that overlaps considerably with the CRs around it. That is, you can always find relatively-powerful CR x creatures, and relatively weak CR x+1 creatures, such that the lower-CR creatures are actually more dangerous. So just keep that in mind: any statement about CR has to be taken with a huge grain of salt, because the system itself is so unreliable.

Creatures whose CR is based primarily on Numbers

These are creatures who don’t have much in the way of particular tricks, even fairly standard ones like flight or DR/magic. If they have them, they have things that have been common for many, many levels, to the point where you would never have made it this far if you couldn’t handle them.

Instead, they’re just tough. This doesn’t have to be physically tough; they could be particularly mobile and have nasty spells rather than a ton of HP and a giant weapon, but even in the “magical” case it’s not really all that “tricky.” After all, on some level the difference between an archer and a blaster is somewhat academic.

This is pure math. Magic items are often very important to the math, but until mid-to-high levels, the differences aren’t make-or-break. mxyzplk’s answer covers this well. In my own games, 7 and 12 look a bit high, but I tend to play with people who expect a certain level of optimization, so we expect numbers to grow faster.

Creatures whose CR is based primarily on Requirements

These are creatures who are on the cutting edge. CR 2-3 monsters with DR/magic, to really encourage you to get a magic weapon. CR 7-9 monsters who fly and attack from range, and make it very, very difficult to engage without flight of your own. CR 9-13 monsters who teleport frequently and are extremely difficult to keep up with if you can’t too.

Their numbers may or may not be up to par, but if they’re not, they’re close, and if they do, they’re not anything special. They are competent and they have powerful but standard tricks.

For these, the mundane classes are in serious trouble. In almost all cases, the “requirements” I mention are magical in nature; if you aren’t a magical class, then magical items was going to be your answer to these creatures. And these are literally the creatures who exist to punish you for not meeting these requirements, for skimping on something the game considers standard fare at your level.

For example, in a typical game, a hypothetical CR 5 monster can have DR 20/magic and most people won’t actually care: DR 20 is massive for 5th level (more than you’ll actually see), but almost everyone who wants to attack with a weapon is going to have magic weapons. Even the monk does. In fact, even CR 3-4 monsters can have a pretty good chunk of it, and a lot of people are prepared for that.

In your game, such a monster might literally be impossible to kill, if they haven’t gotten magic weapons. Even the very-typical DR 5/magic can turn a tough fight into suicide, and a cakewalk into a tightrope walk.

Puzzle monsters

Puzzle monsters are things that really can only be killed one particular way. Trolls, hydras, swarms, ghosts, that kind of thing. Very often, puzzle monsters are quite weak for their CR – if you have the trick.

The problem is that the tricks that you need are almost always supplied by magic. This is the “requirements” problem, but taken to an extreme and showing up far earlier.

Moreover, because magic is massively more versatile – that is, spellcasters get far more spells than warriors get feats and so on, and spells are not restricted by “verisimilitude” – the spellcasters can have far more tricks available simultaneously. This is especially important for puzzle monsters, because they need something very specific: since mundane classes get very few options, they need to take only those things that are very broadly applicable. Spellcasters actually have the flexibility to prepare that one thing you’d never normally need; mundane characters, generally speaking, do not.


You need to be able to judge why a given monster has the CR that it does (also, if it ever deserved that CR in the first place; many deserved CRs higher or lower) in order to do this.

For number-based monsters, the problem isn’t too bad, or at least not until mid-to-high levels, and the players can always ease their way in after grabbing a couple of levels if they need to.

For requirement-based monsters, the problem can be a lot worse, but at the least it should be possible to both anticipate problems (you can see that they lack something the monster expects them to have), and quite possibly to telegraph dangers to the players (e.g. rumors like “The creatures of the Sharp Rocks are naturally protected from physical injury; only magic weapons really work on them.”). But the key is that you have recognize such monsters!

For puzzle monsters, honestly the situation is quite similar to requirement-based monsters, just more extreme. Further, these are an excellent opportunity to exercise some creativity, and set up such fights where player cleverness can replace magic items. Maybe trolls live in a eucalyptus forest; maybe the ranger knows that those are terribly prone to burning quite vigorously. Maybe you don’t need a flaming longsword so much as just a simple torch. Maybe ghosts are haunting a temple, and the priests can bless your weapons with ghost touch – but they have to be physically present and maintain concentration to do so. Or whatever. But definitely recognize these monsters, and be careful using them when you do.

  • \$\begingroup\$ WOW! Thank you so much for all your work preparing this! :) I really appreciate your help! \$\endgroup\$
    – BootLoop
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 5:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ill read this over a few times and keep it all in mind when creating encounter tables for particular hexes :) \$\endgroup\$
    – BootLoop
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 5:06

The magic item effect on CR will become significant around level 7, when significant bonuses would be expected out of weapons/stat buff items and a wide variety of wondrous items are affordable. Below level 7, there is an effect (especially with taken-for-granted utility items like the CLW wand used to top everyone up between combats) but it's not magic items that win battles for you at that level. (With the exception of games where cunning players and go-with-it GMs let you rout 100 goblins with a clever use of a ventriloquism potion). The gap widens linearly from there at about half the slope of a power curve with magic items.

However, in a sandbox setting this is more or less self correcting. As sandbox players test their surroundings to determine what they can handle and what they can't, differences in power from straight CR, from class mix, from scarcity or paucity of magic items, and from how tactically brilliant/blithering idiots your players are, all wrap into one "That was hard, let's go back to the Butterfly Woods for a couple levels first."

The main problem you'll have isn't with party level vs CR, it'll be that lack of magic items hobbles martial characters significantly more than caster characters, so the preexisting divide between them will be immensely widened. A magic item up'ed level 12 fighter is OK with a level 12 not terribly optimized mage; a level 12 fighter without magic is just a fleshen lump in that equation. But again, sandbox - ideally characters will die and reroll and people will figure out what'll make them successful and happy.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is great information. Thank you very much for the response! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – BootLoop
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 3:27
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ And I may just name a location the Butterfly Woods in appreciation of your feedback ! :P \$\endgroup\$
    – BootLoop
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 4:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Especially the part about martial characters is pretty important to remember. There comes a point where the wizard does everything the fighter does better, and not giving the fighter access to magical items is only going to make that more obvious. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 8:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BootLoop I suggest making Butterfly Woods a surprisingly high CR area. Something like Death Butterfly Swarms. \$\endgroup\$
    – MrLemon
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 14:01

Pathfinder and D&D 3.x are highly dependant on characters having the expected wealth by level that is stated in the rule books. They are also highly dependent on that wealth being convertible into actual gadgets that provide direct and material benefits to the character's capabilities (aka magic items); a pile of 50,000gp provides no mechanical advantage if it cannot be converted into something that improves AC, saves, to hit, damage etc.

However, in a sandbox it is vitally important that the player's remember Rule #1: their instinctive response to encountering anything for the first time should be to run away! Its a big dangerous world out there and the wise course is to assume that anything you meet is a potential TPK. The ancient red dragon that lives in Dragon's Pass lives there and hunts nearby whether the characters are 1st or 20th level. Now, while I can't run faster than a dragon, I don't have to; I just have to run faster than you!

If you place a range of CR monsters in your sandbox and the characters can get information about (roughly) what's where then they can decide what they feel capable of engaging. Sooner or later they will get this horribly wrong and they will all die. Hey ho, think of it as a learning opportunity; for the player's of course, the characters are dead.

Unless, possibly, they might get away with it if they remember rule #1; always go into an encounter ready to cut and run the instant things start to go pear shaped. "He who fights and runs away may live to fight another day; he who stays and takes his chance may end up in an ambulance!"

As an aside, this is the reason that I have found that the best optional rule to invoke for a sandbox is to give XP for treasure because it aligns player motivation with character motivation. The characters are not giant vermin exterminators; they adventure to get treasure, not to fight monsters; awarding XP for treasure means the players are trying to do the same thing!

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Player meta-education by trial-and-error across multiple characters is not the only way to run a sandbox, and while it remains an option, it is one that has dropped in popularity quite a lot since, say, Gygax’s day. I was going to upvote this answer, but it really seems only to apply to a particular sort of game, that doesn’t well-describe all sandbox games. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 12:16

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