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The DMG suggests that Player Characters are generally going to be able to handle about 6 encounters between long rests; the difficulty comes from the cumulative strain of multiple consecutive encounters. ("The Adventuring Day", DMG5e p.84)

I'm working on a mystery adventure for my PCs, and I've pretty much completely omitted combat from the session in question since players are requesting more social actions and skill-focused challenges. That said, the player characters aren't really expected to be taking any damage this session.

Except I'm planning for there to be a bit of a "boss battle" at the end. The problem herein is that my party is level 1 (400+XP is deadly) and the boss in question is a Werewolf (CR3 XP700). But maybe that doesn't matter so much if they're not exhausted from anything else.

My Question: Is 5e designed such that a party of 4 should be able to handle something so far into the "Deadly" range as long as it's the only combat or damage-causing encounter of the session? Or should I just consider changing the monster somehow?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep, the party should at least have some inkling that they're going up vs. a Werewolf so they can prepare, esp. against that brutal immunity. 1st-level heroes tend to die from sneezing too hard, y'know. ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Pitzy Nov 23 '15 at 0:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleMonkey They know it insofar that the mystery is about a werewolf. But I'm not sure they'll expect it to attack them once it's been found out. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Nov 23 '15 at 1:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Did you try simulating the encounter? Rolling the dice against yourself tells you quite well how easy or hard an encounter really is. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Nov 23 '15 at 9:06
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Slightly-high CR can be deadly, even on full-resources.

When putting together an encounter or adventure, especially at lower levels, exercise caution when using monsters whose challenge rating is higher than the party's average level. Such a creature might deal enough damage with a single action to take out adventurers of a lower level....

In addition, some monsters might have features that are difficult or impossible for lower-level characters to overcome. For example, a Rakshasa has challenge rating of 13 and is immune to spells of 6th level and lower. SPellcasters of 12th level or lower have no spells higher than 6th level.... Such an encounter would be significantly tougher for the party than the monster's challenge rating might suggest.

"Challenge Rating", DMG5e p.82, emphasis mine.

Yes, many parties will be able to punch "above their weight" if they're going into something stock-full of spell slots, 'once-per' class features, &c. But I think the advice above is well-heeded in your case. Level 1 characters, in particular, can drop rather fast.

(Just the other week I had a first-level party walk into an ambush. The wizard was first in marching order (!) and a crit from a sling (!!) dropped him during surprise. It only got worse from there. Certainly those players didn't manage it well, but there's no reason your werewolf might not go for the "sparkle-guy" first.)


So how do you gauge the difficulty? Game it out yourself! Grab four prototypical characters and throw them in a room with a werewolf. See how they do. Sure, the action economy's on their side. But the werewolf's going to have resistance to mundane (non-silvered) damage. AngryGM's got anarticle on combat encounters which nicely demonstrates this mini-playtest approach.

[Warning: AngryGM's posts feature vulgar language, though likely no worse than you'll hear on basic cable. Certainly worse than you'll hear here, though.]

But objectives matter...

Is your boss cornered? Is he so single-minded that he'll fight to the death when escape is an option? Why is your boss opposed to the characters? Why are the characters after the boss? These are crucial questions in the encounter's construction. You could throw a CR6 Kuo-toa Archpriest in their way who won't be deadly if...

  • He's keenly afraid of any attention being drawn to his presence
  • He'll blanch at the sight of any blood
  • He's got plans for the party and wants them alive
  • He's got plans for the party and just wants to draw them along
  • He's in his prepared defenses and just needs to flip a lever to keep the party at bay
  • &c. &c. &c.

Your werewolf probably doesn't want to die any more than your players' characters do. Use that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks a bunch! I've run through some ideas and come to the conclusion that this will turn my party into chunky salsa. As a reader of the AngryGM myself, I think I'll make it a Paragon Monster: 2 wolves with resistance to nonmagical, nonsilver bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing, and its final form without the resistance—you know, since it's for first-level characters. By my math, that's exactly 500 XP after modifying for action economy, which seems perfect! :) \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Nov 23 '15 at 2:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your new scenario presents a wholly different set of issues - more enemies means more attacks, resistance still means it takes longer to bring down one baddie, wolves get pack tactics, and they're essentially fighting three foes in one encounter - so be careful. \$\endgroup\$ – Pitzy Nov 23 '15 at 10:00
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Deadly encounter

The DMG describes a deadly encounter as:

Deadly. 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.

Paraphrasing, if everything goes right the party still risks defeat and one or more of them could die.

So, in short, a party can handle a deadly encounter if they know how to squeeze the greatest possible results from their characters, and they get lucky and everyone is OK with PC death. However, if they get surprised, the whole thing can be over in the first round.

Note, however, that losing a character (dead or down) during an encounter ratchets up the difficulty because there is now one fewer character to deal with it. In addition those who are left are "wasting" actions stabilising or healing the downed PC; that is not dealing with the enemy. Whole parties can fall like dominoes once the first PC goes down.

Overamped CR

In addition, you are proposing to throw a monster with a CR higher than the average level at the party. As @nitsua60 has pointed out this creates a whole other level of complication because these monsters can take out a PC in one turn.

For your specific example of a werewolf:

  1. It is extremely unlikely to be surprised (if the party makes noises or smells it has a passive Wisdom (Perception) of 19).
  2. It has a decent chance (40-50%) of surprising the party
  3. It has a reasonable chance of being hidden when the party arrives giving it advantage on its first attack.
  4. It can attack twice per turn doing 3-10 hp on each hit (doubled if it gets a critical).
  5. One hit can drop a first level PC; two hits are almost guaranteed to.
  6. Count on the party having one dead or incapacitated character before they can do anything to the werewolf.
  7. In addition, the werewolf has no vulnerability to weapon wielding foes (and knows it) so a smart werewolf will ignore them in order to take down the spellcasters first.
  8. after that it is really a matter of the werewolf picking bits of armour out of its teeth.

Other ways to kill your PCs

More monsters of lower CR can be just as deadly. More monsters means more opportunities per round to damage the PCs. The action economy at work.

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TL;DR: It might be possible with a skilled group who employ excellent tactics and is prepared for such an encounter but you're more likely to kill them than not.

Normally a party should be able to handle a deadly encounter or two during a given adventuring day. The DMG states:

most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters in a day. If the adventure has more easy encounters, the adventurers can get through more. If it has more deadly encounters, they can handle fewer. (pg.84)

However, I think this is well beyond the deadly xp threshold and capabilities of a first level group. Especially if they're unprepared for it.

Yes, the XP threshold for four level one PCs is 400+ but the thresholds at that level for that many PCs also scales by a factor of 100 for each difficulty (e.g. easy encounters are 100+, medium encounters are 200+, etc.). If we extrapolate from there it could be fair to say that anything above 500 (or even a generous 600) is beyond deadly and is likely to flat out kill the party.

Aside from that, a lower level party is unlikely to have the resources they need to defeat a monster that is so far above their pay grade. Monsters whose challenge rating is higher than the party's average level generally have certain abilities that the party just can't deal with. Again, especially if they're unprepared.

In the case of a werewolf; it has immunity to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from nonmagical weapons that aren't silvered and has Multiattack which could potentially drop a PC in a single round.

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One possibility is to run the encounter but set up some environmental factors to go in the player's favour. For example maybe the werewolf is already injured, or the players have silver dust that makes their weapons temporarily silver, or they have friends firing arrows at it from above, or they come in and catch it by surprise and it's prone and being attacked before it can move, etc, etc.

There are lots of ways you can weaken the werewolf enough to make this a reasonably balanced encounter (and reduce its CR and Xp accordingly of course). If it should escape this makes it even better because next time the players will be higher level - but it also won't be weakened - so you get a natural power progression.

Be aware that the answer to this question really depends on your players. How optimized their players are, how well they work together, whether they have the right equipment for this foe, etc. In my pathfinder game I've thrown CR12 monsters at a level 6 party and they killed it with no losses. That's experienced players with optimized characters working together well though.

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