Wringing Out 5E D&D Challenge Rating and Encounter Building
Pack mentality is a hell of a drug. I always get a kick out of the chorus of cries whenever the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons challenge rating system comes up. The most recent time made me realize I’ve been remiss all this time. The Nerdarchists made a video about it and just about every other YouTuber who talks about 5E D&D too. Social media conversations, in person conversations, blogs (even this one!) all weigh in mostly to chime in on how it confuses them, doesn’t work for them or provides impractical guidance to them. I’m in a sassy mood this weekend so I’ll summarize — they fail to understand the whole because they focus on one or a only a few parts. Let’s get into it.
5E D&D encounter building assumptions
Whenever I want to really get down into 5E D&D rules the first stop is always the Basic Rules. Anyone and everyone can access them since Wizards of the Coast puts them out for free here or you can navigate a much more smooth experience at D&D Beyond where they’re also freely available right here. Incidentally there’s a tremendous amount of 5E D&D material you can find for free and legitimately. The first time challenge rating gets mentioned in the Basic Rules with any context for how it relates to combat is appropriately enough in chapter 12: Monsters. It’s mentioned earlier in some class feature descriptions for things like Turn Undead and Wild Shape. And what do you know? Turns out the very second sentence of the challenge rating explanation seems to be where the pack thinking goes astray.
“An appropriately equipped and well-rested party of four adventurers should be able to defeat a monster that has a challenge rating equal to its level without suffering any deaths.”— 5E D&D Basic Rules, chapter 12: Monsters, Monster Statistics, Challenge
From this point on the baseline assumption is a party of four characters of equal level squaring off against a single creature with a challenge rating equal to that level keeping in mind this party carries standard gear. For the sake of consistency in this post assume well-rested means after a long rest without any spent resources. The rest of this post, which takes a closer look at the much maligned but actually reasonable challenge rating system, surrounds the material in the next chapter of the Basic Rules. It’s also in the Dungeon Master’s Guide chapter 3 under Creating a Combat Encounter. I’ll take a moment to let you know I do not use the guidelines there myself when I run games. To be fair though I barely prep and plan out much at all. You think I’m going to make all those calculations? Thankfully DDB’s Encounter Building tool can do all of this for me anyway, which is what we use to determine the difficulty of the encounters we design ourselves for y’all.
The DDB Encounter Building tool is so good in fact it even accounts for Party Size in the calculations. I only just noticed this myself while researching this post. I was curious how using challenge rating to determine encounter difficulty would be different if instead of four adventurers there were only two in the party. Let’s say an Assassin rogue and a sorcerer of some sort. Because of the smaller party size any encounters built using the challenge rating system produce vastly different difficulty now with a 1.5 multiplier even for a single monster. For example an appropriately equipped and well-rested party of four adventurers ought to find a battle against, say, a gold dragon wyrmling to be of Medium difficulty — one or two scary moments and a victory with no casualties but use of healing resources. The same monster squaring off against a party half the size though? Now it’s Deadly and could be lethal for one or more player characters. Be careful out there, smaller parties — adventuring ain’t easy!
Incidentally the difficulty naturally goes down for larger parties and reduces single creature multipliers by 0.5. The preceding guidelines assume you have a party consisting of three to five adventurers. If you read my other sassy post this weekend about why warlocks are dumb unless they spam eldritch blast you’ll know I’m not a complex crunchy math nerd so thank goodness for this DDB Encounter Building. I’d even call it square with the anti-challenge rating herd if the digital tool didn’t exist because while I believe it’s a useful system I’ve got no interest in working out it’s noodly calculations longhand.
The basics of the challenge rating system for 5E D&D encounter building established there’s a couple of other components, which I suspect add to the confusion for the crowd of a singular voice out there. First up there’s the famous 5E D&D Adventuring Day also described in the Basic Rules (and the DMG) right beneath the challenge rating system for encounter building so you can’t miss it. Unless you skip over it completely or gloss over it without considering what the words communicate to you.
The Adventuring Day in 5E D&D
If I’m honest I’m having a hard time expressing what the guidelines express in a different way since they’re pretty clear and concise but I’ll give it a shot. The baseline assumption in 5E D&D is a party of four adventurers spending a period between long rests earning a certain amount of experience by overcoming challenges while managing their depleting resources. Take a moment to let this sink in and then consider what your own 5E D&D experiences are like. Maybe your games are like Nerdarchy’s, which lean more on exploration and social interaction scenarios and cinematic combats where everyone can blow through all their best stuff at once knowing they’ll more than likely get to rest before danger emerges again. Maybe your group proudly never rolls dice or provides characters with plot armor for storytelling purposes. Maybe everyone in the group rolls into a campaign with highly precision built characters with custom equipment and impeccable tactics.
All of those playstyles are great! They’re lots of fun and even though I might wish more people would explore other game systems to discover the ones that would actually enhance their preferred playstyle I totally get it — 5E D&D is huge and everyone’s playing it. I’m an admitted fanboy myself and I just like the trappings of D&D in general. It’s the comfort food of tabletop RPGs. But I mention all these for a very important reason. They’re not the baseline assumption of 5E D&D so if you’re playing this way and the challenge rating system for encounter building isn’t working out for you then now you know why. In other words the system functions best for the only thing designers could account for — an average 5E D&D party’s experience.
Perhaps the real issue causing a disconnect for so many folks is related to a lot of the complaints I encountered about Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Many people expressed a wish the book had more guidance for Dungeon Masters, which surprised me to hear. I’ve suspect there’s a notion that more rules somehow leads to a direct increase in smoother gameplay. It’s my belief no amount of rules can be presented through which even the most effortless following of them creates a better game tabletop roleplaying game experience. But perhaps if the encounter building system using challenge rating codified the difficulties in a more complicated way it would benefit those folks. For example instead of describing how “a hard encounter could go badly for the adventurers. Weaker characters might get taken out of the fight, and there’s a slim chance that one or more characters might die,” something more along these lines would help:
- Characters with less than the average number of total hit points have a 50% chance of being reduced to 0 hp during this encounter.
- Characters with the spellcasting trait can expect to use their second highest spell slot during this encounter.
- Characters with the Second Wind feature have a 25% chance it would be the wisest thing to do on their turn during this encounter.
- Characters who rely on a niche interaction of multiclass features to increase their damage output in a spectacular fashion once or twice before a long rest probably will need to do so during this encounter.
And so on, you get the idea. This way folks who enjoy minutiae and crunch can really get deep in there to plan out those encounters with laser precision and know exactly what’s going to happen. While crunching those numbers they can even compare the party’s collection of magic items to a baseline standard for even finer tuning. Unfortunately the guidance for this aspect of 5E D&D isn’t in the Basic Rules. The DMG however does kinda sorta include some material in this regard. For the purposes of proving myself right I’ll assume the treasure tables’ chances of including magic items appropriate in power and frequency for the game’s baseline assumptions reflects in the challenge rating and encounter building systems. And if you want to get really specific I’ll refer you to the Awarding Magic Items material in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. With all this guidance it shouldn’t be any trouble to expect each of the six to eight medium or hard encounters a party of four appropriately equipped and well-rested adventurers can overcome between long rests to turn out exactly as you imagine when you accurately used all the 5E D&D content to determine such things.
Now that I’m thinking about this so much I’ll pause the sass to address one last thing when it comes to challenge rating as it relates to encounter building and difficulty. The single most influential aspect to this and any other part of 5E D&D or RPG in general also shows up in the rules — luck (with a lower case “L” for halfling and feat enthusiasts). The Adventuring Day implies players experience average luck in terms of what I assume is dice rolls. Rolling funny shaped dice make RPGs what they are, to paint with a broad brush, and there’s no accounting for their effect on what happens during gameplay. In particular where 5E D&D counts most for better or worse is in combat especially in context of what this post is all about.
Consider how the popularity of the game exploded all over the world so much the last few years. All these gamers can connect and communicate with each other to share anecdotes about how their party of 5th level adventurers took down an aboleth. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: An awesome challenge rating 10 creature also in those free Basic Rules. You’re welcome, world.] That’s a maximally Deadly encounter plus what amounts to an Easy encounter in XP budget terms. It could be lethal for one or more, they’ll have to make smart choices and still risk defeat. The additional difficult element “doesn’t tax the characters’ resources or put them in serious peril. They might lose a few hit points, but victory is pretty much guaranteed.” The XP budget for the day is blown and it’s time for a long rest.
What’s so confusing about that?