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The 5e DMG provides a table of average monster stats (damage per round, AC, etc.) by CR, along with a set of modifiers to account for special abilities and resistances.

Is there a similar set of guidelines, official or otherwise, for players? For example, is there a table where I can plug in the party's total damage per round and save DCs and etc. and get a "party equivalent" CR?

I often find myself in situations where the PCs experience some significant boost or reduction in their combat power, and I want to be able to properly scale encounters to account for that, or at least to have some idea of how much easier/harder the encounter will be.

It seems that the game designers must have had something like this in mind when designing the CR system and balancing the game.

I've seen this question, but my impression is that bounded accuracy and general rebalancing makes this a much more tractable question in 5e compared to 3.5, at least at lower levels. Additionally, I am not asking for help on the design of particular encounters; I'm looking for some (very) general, overall guidelines.

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Compared to the guidelines on calculating CR for custom monsters in the DMG [see note at end], I do not believe there's anywhere near as comprehensive of a set of guidelines in the rulebooks for determining how to adjust the encounter building XP Thresholds for a party that can perform meaningfully above their own character level- but that said, there's at least one decent place that can point you in the right direction to get started.

(Note: Much of the encounter building language in the book uses the experience totals of the enemy in the encounter to determine difficulty rather than CR- When I refer to adjusting experience below, I'm referring to the amount of experience worth of monsters you're sending at the player)

Adjusting for situational advantages/setbacks

I often find myself in situations where the PCs experience some significant boost or reduction in their combat power, and I want to be able to properly scale encounters to account for that, or at least to have some idea of how much easier/harder the encounter will be.

The encounter building section of the DMG actually has a decent subsection to cover this sort of thing if it's a temporary or situational combat power change, specifically the 'Modifying Encounter Difficulty' section on DMG p.84-85. It says to consider the difficulty of the encounter adjusted by one per major drawback, along with some examples of what would be considered appropriate drawbacks to do this for.

What would've been a 'medium' encounter is now a 'hard' one because of whatever's reducing your party's combat power- you can reverse that when designing an encounter to say "Ok, I know the party is going to be blind in this room, so in order to make a 'medium' encounter I have to make one that would normally be considered 'easy' by the encounter building rules" (These guidelines also apply if the enemy is the one suffering the drawback- what would've normally been a 'medium' difficulty fight is now considered 'easy' because the enemies in this room are all blind).

That all said, this section is very general and you should evaluate how much you should adjust the difficulty based on the actual setback level relative to the examples given in the book.

Adjusting for overall party power

Within reason, the above guidelines for situational adjustments can probably be used even for permanent party advantages like extremely potent equipment. Just be careful to not jump the gun on using them before the party's actual increased power level matches up.

It's probably worth slowly adjusting the monster XP total you're throwing at them to get a feel for the effects rather than immediately jumping up a notch, as it's easy to overcompensate when you feel the PCs are doing extremely well- especially considering that the players will have to endure 6-8 encounters in a standard adventuring day.

Making the actual encounter adjustments

Increasing the XP total of what you're sending against the players is safer than increasing the CR of monsters you're sending against the players.

CR, as the sidebar on DMG p.82 mentions, is more or less a 'you must be this tall to ride' bar (at low levels especially). If you increase the CR of what you're sending against the players to much higher than their own level, you run a high risk of making the encounter incredibly swingy as the monsters get mechanics the player can't deal with yet (including but not limited to damage high enough that lower level players' HP are not sufficient to cope with it).

You can still pull higher-than-party-level CRs off, but you need to have a good sense of whether or not the extra power the players have is sufficiently equivalent to actually being a higher level; It doesn't matter that level 1 Timmy the Wizard got a +3 Wand of the War Mage somehow, that CR2 ogre can still oneshot him.

Keeping the CR #s at or under the party's level but using the extra XP allotted to the encounter to send more things at them (or making what you were planning on sending a higher CR that's still at or under their level) is a safer option, so long as you keep the 'Modify Total XP for Multiple Monsters' step of encounter building in mind (DMG p.82).

Summary

When you're building encounters for situations in which you know the players or enemies will have significant drawbacks relative to the other side, judge the severity of those drawbacks against the examples given in the "Modifying Encounter Difficulty" section on DMG p.84-85 and adjust the expected difficulty/XP you're allocating to the encounter accordingly, based on the values in the XP Thresholds by Character Level table on DMG p.82.

If your party is sufficiently powerful to be equivalent to a higher level, you can even consider judging the amount of XP worth of monsters you send their way against the next level's XP thresholds, though this should be done with great care given the power boost some levels contain.

I think it's also worth suggesting to not do this all the time- give the players some chance to feel strong or weak on occasion due to their planning/setbacks/tradeoffs/etc. If they were clever and gave their enemies a major setback, let them enjoy an easy slaughterfest for an encounter or two as a reward!


Note from start: While the DMG contains rules for calculating the effective CR of anything (including player characters) and that might seem useful for the purposes of the question, I think those don't apply here; those rules are effective at determining a PC's CR as an enemy in an encounter, but don't do much to help you figure out what (as an example) the 'medium' encounter XP Threshold for your party is given their effective CR, as there's no chart or conversion for that. Putting your party against an enemy encounter with an equivalent CR/XP value to their calculated CR values would be well into 'deadly' difficulty territory, as you're essentially giving both sides even odds and seeing which one shakes out.

To put it another way, knowing your party of 4 level 5 PCs (were they NPCs with the same abilities) is effectively an encounter consisting of 3 CR3 NPCs and 1 CR4 NPC (note: values are made up) doesn't really help much; There's no encounter building guidelines to determine the difficulty of one set of NPCs fighting against another, and just throwing 3 other CR3s and 1 CR4 against them would have an extremely high chance of party wiping rather than being a balanced encounter.

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Your question appears to have a number of tangentially related parts.

CR for PCs

Is there a similar set of guidelines, official or otherwise, for players? For example, is there a table where I can plug in the party's total damage per round and save DCs and etc. and get a "party equivalent" CR?

Yes: its exactly the same table, plug the PC's damage output (over the first 3 rounds of combat using their most powerful attacks) to get the offensive CR, hit points, AC etc to get their defensive CR and combine for an overall CR and then scale by whatever rule of thumb you think is appropriate because the actual CR of a monster rarely corresponds with what you calculate from the DMG.

For example a 5th level sorcerer probably has about 30 hp and an AC around 13 (or 18 if they know the Shield spell) giving a defensive CR of about 1/8. The same sorcerer has an attack bonus of about +8 and spell DC of 18 and can do about 33 damage/round with Heightened Fireballs to 2 creatures or more creatures for a dpr of 60-70 giving an offensive CR of 11 or so. This gives an overall CR of 5-6

A 5th level Fighter has about 50 hp and an AC of 18 for a defensive CR of 2 or so. They have the same attack bonus and DC as the Sorcerer with damage output with an opening action surge and wielding, say, a long sword with dueling is 12 per attack x 4 Attack Actions x 2 attacks per action = 96 over 3 rounds or 32/round for an offensive CR of 5-6. This gives an overall CR of say 4.

This seems about right: an adventuring party will probably suffer more damage at the hands of a sorcerer than at the hands of a fighter.

Encounter Difficulty

Encounters are not and are not supposed to be "balanced"

D&D 5e is a game of resource management - a full strength party at the start of the an adventuring day when they have all of their resources available can defeat encounters with monsters well above their CR (except for levels 1-3 when PCs are too "squishy"). However, that same party at the end of the day with few spell slots and per rest abilities left may struggle against monsters with CR well below their level.

The art of GMing is about setting the appropriate pace, that is, the number and difficulty of the combat encounters between rests so that the players are pushed but not overwhelmed. The encounter that results in a TPK is not (or not necessarily) of itself "too hard" - it is a combination of that encounter's inherent difficulty, the resources the PCs have (spell slots, hp, channel divinity, bard's inspiration etc.) at the start of that encounter and the tactical choices the player's make about using those resources.

Boosts and Reductions in combat powers

I am unsure what you mean here but if you are talking about having available spell slots or other depleting resources available or not available then this is part of the normal hurly burly of an adventuring day and you don't need to fiddle with encounters to accommodate it.

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Challenge rating is determined in the same way regardless of the creature being evaluated. This means you can use the same rules in the DMG to determine the CR of a given group of adventurers. Challenge Rating is a measure of challenge a party of a given level will face. A single CR 5 monster, for example, is a medium challenge for a party of 4-5 level 5 adventurers. So, to answer you directly, to determine the party's CR, you need to go through the same steps you would for any given monster, then add multipliers based on the number of PCs in the party just like you would for encounter design.

However, knowing how CR is calculated and how it applies to PCs from the encounter design perspective, rather than going through the steps outlined in the DMG, we can invert the equation. If a CR 5 monster is a medium challenge for 4-5 adventurers of average level 5, then a party of 4-5 level 5 PCs is a deadly encounter for a single CR 5 monster (due to the group size multiplier). Bear in mind that CR is weighted towards PCs so it is not an equivalency, as PCs are expected to be able to tackle most challenges thrown at them

Using the CR calculation rules where a single 1/4 CR monster is a medium challenge (50xp) for a L1 PC, we can determine that a single adventurer at level 4 is roughly a CR 1. Looking at what capabilities a single PC of any class or combinations of classes has at level 4, this seems to balance out--a party of 4-5 well-equipped and prepared level 1 PCs could reasonably, perhaps even easily, take on a single level 4 PC.

A final note on your question. CR is used to determine the challenge a given encounter will give to PCs, based on the average party level vs. the adjusted XP value of the encounter. If you can determine the adjusted XP value of the encounter using the encounter building rules, then there is no need to do this work to determine the rough CR value of the party.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is CR actually that invertible? Wouldn't a party of 4-5 level 5 adventurers actually be a deadly challenge for a CR5 monster, because the PCs almost always win such an encounter? I think that such an inversion would be useful, but it'd also be good to get some idea of how much it's tilted in the PC's favor. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Dec 21 '16 at 1:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Icyfire A full on evenly-leveled PVP battle would likely have a similar outcome to an extremely 'deadly' fight- one side dead, the other side badly bloodied- so comparing the PC party to a 'deadly' CR of their level seems more right, at least. \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Dec 21 '16 at 1:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Icyfire I've made some modifications to my answer, addressing the fact that it's clearly not an equivalency. Do the changes help? \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Dec 21 '16 at 1:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CTWind I made an initial error in my calculations because I failed to account for the group size modifier when inverting the CR calculation for a group of 4-5 PCs. I've adjusted my answer accordingly. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Dec 21 '16 at 1:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CTWind It's important to remember that CR is not a perfectly calculable value. The Ogre, for example, calculates as a CR 1 using the DMG's formula but in play-testing was found to be too much for an APL 1 party of 4-5, so it was adjusted to CR 2. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Dec 21 '16 at 2:27
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As I mention in my other answer, while there is a way to calculate a given character's CR as if they were an NPC using the guidelines on DMG p.274, there's no particular table for determining what a 'medium' difficulty encounter is for a creature of a particular CR. As such, finding out your effective CR isn't particularly useful for encounter building.

I've spent some time running through the encounter building & CR calculation math to see if it's actually reasonable to create such a table, and have come up with something that may be useful as a very rough guideline if you're at the point where you're calculating your party members' CR because they're performing so differently from expectations at their level.

Building the Table

In order to try and map CRs to difficulty, I had to find a way to combine the method of calculating CR and the encounter building math. In order to do so, I had to estimate the CR of a 'default' character of a given level.

To build these estimates, I used the CR calculation guidelines from DMG p.274 on a Variant Human Fighter (Champion), with starting (relevant) stats of 16 Str & 14 Con, and the Tough feat. I chose these options so that as many features of the character as possible factor flatly into the CR calculating math, as Champions are one of the most consistent/least resource based subclasses and trying to account for a full set of limited/resource based character features in a CR calculation introduces more variables.

The fighter is equipped with a morningstar, shield, and chainmail. For character progression, he gains +2 Str at 4 and 6, then +2 Con at 8, 12, and 14. I ignore the remaining two ASIs as other stats don't affect these calculations, and there are few feats remaining that would affect CR calculations. He gains splint armor at 5 and plate at 11. He begins with the Defense fighting style, then takes Dueling as his additional one at level 10.

When calculating this character's effective CR, I mostly do not take any limited-use features into account for CR calculation purposes (these being Second Wind, Action Surge, Indomitable, & Survivor).

The exception to this is that for levels 17+, I assume the first round of each combat uses Action Surge to Attack which increases expected damage by 1/3 (Overall Damage Output, DMG p.287) and increases the calculated CR of levels 17-20 by 1 (and +10% for expanded critical would actually bump level 20 up by an additional 1, if you wish to account for that). The reason for this is because 17+ is when you can use it twice per rest. Since the 'minimum' guideline for encounters per adventuring day is 6 and the expected number of short rests is ~2, this is when you can roughly assume one use per combat.

The expanded critical strike range I don't take into account because even adding +10% to expected damage to account for it doesn't seem to push any calculated CRs up to the next tier (level 20 aside, as mentioned above).

To calculate the value for ~'Medium' difficulty CR, I simply use the encounter building guidelines as if a solo character of that character level was fighting a solo creature (using the 1.5x multiplier, as per the guidelines on DMG p.82-83.).

I pick the highest value CR # that isn't 'hard' (usually this is 'medium', but in the case of levels 3 and 9 I believe there is no CR that is 'medium' for them as a solo monster, only 'easy' and 'hard').

If you wish to use this for purposes other than solo PC vs. solo monster, you may wish to use the XP Thresholds By Character Level table on DMG p.82 and map that to the effective character CRs for that character level. (I didn't wish to reproduce that here as it seems to specifically be a table that WOTC has been avoiding making freely available in their free PDFs, and also it's an even larger table to copy down)

\$\begin{array}{r||c|c|} &\text{Effective Character CR}&\text{~'Medium' difficulty CR}\\\hline\hline 1&1&1/4\\\hline 2&1&1/2\\\hline 3&1&1/2\\\hline 4&2&1\\\hline 5&3&2\\\hline 6&4&2\\\hline 7&4&3\\\hline 8&5&3\\\hline 9&5&3\\\hline 10&6&4\\\hline 11&7&4\\\hline 12&8&5\\\hline 13&8&5\\\hline 14&9&6\\\hline 15&9&6\\\hline 16&9&7\\\hline 17&11&8\\\hline 18&11&8\\\hline 19&12&8\\\hline 20&13&9\\\hline \end{array}\$

(As a quick, rough sanity check, we can do the math and see that a level 20 character fighting a solo CR 13 is considered a 'deadly' encounter, which would likely be the appropriate descriptor for a fight where a character fights itself given that we've calculated a level 20 as being CR 13.)

Conclusion, Summary, & Precautions

As a rough guideline, it seems accurate to say if you calculate a character as being CR 5-9, a good medium matchup against them (solo) is 2-3 CR below them. At CR10+, that seems to grow to 3-4. Below CR 5, it's a bit murkier, but 2 CR steps below them still seems safe, if not easy. Unfortunately, we can't really extrapolate past level 20, so if a party member is performing well and above CR13 there's not much we can do to map them to a 'medium' encounter in this fashion.

A big problem here is that CR is a relatively 'low-resolution' measurement, even compared to character level. We can see this with how effective character CR 9 maps to ~'Medium' CR 6 & 7, and this character is CR 9 at character levels 14, 15, & 16. As a result, it could be hard to tell if the party is at the 'high end' of CR 9 or the 'low end'.

I believe this issue is also compounded when converting through the two tables- both are meant as guidelines and good estimates, but the 'estimate' part gets even blurrier when you're trying to convert through two previously-unrelated tables like this. This is especially true when using only a single character like this as the anchoring point between the two tables- fighters might fall very high or low in their character level -> CR conversion ratio compared to other classes.

I may also just be outright making a mistake in the calculations if the class features I've ignored have a bigger impact than I expect on CR, though I imagine it'd be +1 CR at most at higher levels if so. If I had the time, I'd do this for each character class to get a better overall estimate of character level ~-> CR, but this took quite a bit as-is.

I believe there's also just some inherent risk in using the CR calculation guidelines on PCs; it becomes very clear that PCs have significantly different ratios of offense and defense compared to a typical monster, to the point where the difference between the sample character's calculated offensive & defensive CR was as large as 4 at points, and that may be larger than the expected/tolerated difference between offense & defense for sane CR calculations.

Ultimately, those calculations are meant for use on NPCs- they don't take into account such things as having to go through multiple fights, having hit dice for resting between them, and potentially having no resources when starting a fight; They're meant for monsters that are there for a single encounter.

That all said, the rough guideline should serve as a decent starting point and still leave you with breathing room to adjust for encounters past the first one, so long as you take stock of how the party performed.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ (For the record, I don't believe the complexity of this is worth it over the relative simplicity of my other answer, but as the character CR calculation was brought up I figured attempting to produce this chart may be useful to someone, at least) \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Jan 11 '17 at 7:46

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